On Tuesday, November 1, the late singer and actress Lena Horne—one of the most popular entertainers of her era—became the first Black woman namesake of a Broadway theater, a plan first unveiled by the Nederlander Organization last month.
A ceremony that evening at the former Brooks Atkinson Theatre in Manhattan assembled a wide swath of entertainers and public officials from around the country to celebrate the occasion.
The nation’s first Black Miss America, NYC native Vanessa Williams—a Black Catholic like Horne—serenaded the crowd with Horne’s signature tune “Stormy Weather” and also took time to honor Horne’s body of work on and off the stage.
“She's been a wonderful role model through her activism, through her stories, her career, her life, her loss, her triumphs,” Williams told People at the event.
“She's not just a gorgeous face.”
Horne, born to African-American New Yorkers in 1917, was active for more than seven decades on both the small and silver screens, starring in two dozen films and winning four Grammy Awards for her work on Broadway and in jazz. She recorded roughly 60 albums and was the first Black woman to sign a long-term contract in Hollywood.
With much of her career taking place during the era of segregation, Horne was also active in the Civil Rights Movement, singing in early integrated music clubs and touring with the NAACP and other activist groups in the Deep South.
A lifelong and devout Catholic, she was also a member at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue, located down the street from her home later in life on the Upper East Side. She was funeralized there following her death in 2010.
“On this All Saints' Day, we give thanks and praise to God through His Son, Christ Jesus, for the witness of all those who have devoted and given their lives for the Faith, but we also thank Him for the gift of Lena Horne,” reads a Facebook post from the Vicariate Office of Black Catholic Concerns for the Diocese of Brooklyn, where Horne was raised.
“[Her] life was a radiant example of that Faith, from beginning to end.”
Coincidentally, Tuesday’s ceremony took place on the first day of Black Catholic History Month, a celebration founded in 1990 at NYC’s own Fordham University—from which Horne received an honorary degree seven years later.
The Lena Horne Theatre is the second Broadway theater overall to be named after a Black person, following the James Earl Jones Theatre being rechristened as such earlier this year. (Ironically enough, Jones too is a Catholic.)
The new wave of recognized Black history on the Great White Way is a welcome sign for many, and Horne’s family echoed the sentiments.
"Representation means everything, and to know that there was somebody who—even though she was afraid—kept going, I think that's important. Especially now," Lumet told People.
"My grandma's a Bed-Stuy girl, and we're a New York family. So to have her always be in New York City in the theater district, it means everything."
Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).