Honoring the Life of Harry Belafonte

By NYPL Staff
April 25, 2023
Harry Belafonte dressed in a suit with a gold medal around his neck

Harry Belafonte at the 2016 Library Lions ceremony.

Shane Drummond/BFA

The New York Public Library honors the life of Harry Belafonte, who passed away on April 25 at the age of 96. A barrier-breaking Black singer and actor, he used his visibility as an entertainer to champion social justice and the civil rights movement. Belafonte was a longtime friend of the Library—he was inducted as a Library Lion in 2016, had the 115th Street Library renamed in his honor in 2017, and donated his personal archive to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in 2020.

Through April 29, view a pop-up display honoring Harry Belafonte at the Schomburg Center. Learn more about the display and Belafonte's collection at the Center. 

Statement from Anthony W. Marx, President of The New York Public Library 

The New York Public Library mourns the loss of Harry Belafonte, an icon of music and cinema, a legendary figure in Black history, and a cherished friend and namesake of the Library. He used his many talents to advocate for a more just society, both in his community in Harlem and on behalf of people all over the world. His life was one of service, and we are all in his debt. 

The Library’s relationship with Mr. Belafonte runs deep. In recognition of his work as an artist and advocate, he was named a “Library Lion” in 2016. A year later, the NYPL’s 115th Street Library was renamed in honor of the Harlem native. And in 2020, The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture—an institution Mr. Belafonte called ‘one of the greatest gifts our city has bestowed on our community’—acquired his archives to preserve his legacy and share it with our patrons. 

At the time of the branch renaming, Mr. Belafonte said, ‘A library is a place for people to come together, to learn about their world and explore new ideas, things I've tried to do my entire life.’ For this, we will always be grateful. 

Harry Belafonte left an indelible mark on more than the New York Public Library. His legacy as a unique and incomparable performer and a joyful advocate for justice and knowledge will inspire generations to come. Our condolences to his family, friends, and his loved ones, as well as the many people all over the world who are mourning this loss.

Statement from Joy Bivins, Director of The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

The death of Harry Belafonte is a tremendous loss for us all. Mr. Belafonte was a cultural icon whose impact on Black history was far-reaching, from his legendary contributions as an artist to his human and civil rights activism. His legacy will burn bright for generations to come.

Belafonte also left his mark on the New York Public Library. Belafonte once said he found an “epiphany” at the Schomburg Center for it was at the American Negro Theatre in the Schomburg that inspired him to begin his onstage career. As the namesake of the 115th Street Branch and through the acquisition of his collection at the Schomburg Center, we are honored to carry on a small part of his bright legacy. 

As the King of Calypso takes his final bow, we cherish the gifts he shared with us and honor his incredible voice that strengthened justice, gave us an unforgettable rhythm, and inspired us on the screen, stage, and beyond.

Life and Career

Born in Harlem to West Indian parents, Belafonte spent many of his formative childhood years in Jamaica before returning to New York City where he attended high school before enlisting in the Navy. He worked odd jobs after returning to the City where he became enthralled by acting and the theatre after being gifted two tickets to the American Negro Theatre (ANT) which performed, at the time, in the 150-seat Little Library Theatre basement stage of the 135th Street branch of The New York Public Library which now houses the Schomburg Center. He became a volunteer stagehand at ANT and was given his first part in On Striver’s Row in 1946.

a group of Black actors on stage in a scene from 'Strivers Row'

Scene from the American Negro Theatre production of "On Strivers Row," 1946, with Harry Belafonte (seated at left).

Photo courtesy of Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. 

Belafonte became active in the civil rights movement in the 1950s and was one of Martin Luther King Jr’s most trusted friends and confidants, helping to organize the Freedom March on Washington in 1963 where King delivered his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech. Throughout his life, he organized demonstrations, raised money, and mobilized friends for the cause of civil rights and social justice. Later, Belafonte devoted himself to humanitarian efforts, including participating in the 1985 charity song “We Are the World” and becoming a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

Belafonte continued training with ANT, alongside actors such as Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, and received bigger roles and also began singing in nightclubs. His singing and acting careers took off and he would become one of the most famous and admired entertainers of the 20th century. He is credited with introducing Americans to calypso music (his 1956 album Calypso made him the first artist to sell more than a million records in the U.S.) and is a rare EGOT holder for his Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards.

Harry Belafonte and Bill de Blasio shake hands in a library setting surrounded by people smiling

Harry Belafonte shakes hands with Mayor Bill de Blasio at the renaming of the 115th Street Library in his honor, 2017.

Photo: Jonathan Blanc/NYPL

In 2016, the Library was honored to name Harry Belafonte a Library Lion which recognizes individuals for outstanding achievements in their respective fields of arts, culture, letters, and scholarship. The following year, the 115th Street Library was renamed the Harry Belafonte Library to honor him and the values of open, free, and equal access to education and opportunity that he stood for. In 2020, Belafonte donated his personal archive to the Schomburg Center which includes 400 linear feet of audiovisual materials, personal and professional papers such as letters and manuscripts, television scripts, and photo albums that chronicle his life, activism, and career.

exterior of a library showing a purple and black bunting hanging above the doors

In his memory, a bunting has been installed in front of the Harry Belafonte 115th Street Library.