Honoring Harry Belafonte: Entertainer, activist was inspired by Philadelphia legend

"Paul Robeson was really the figure that Belafonte looked up to," said Vernoca L. Michael.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Tuesday, April 25, 2023
Honoring Harry Belafonte: Entertainer was inspired by Philly legend
The silky-voiced entertainer knew his stardom was a draw and he used it to draw attention to important causes until his final days.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Vernoca L. Michael got a comforting pat on the leg from a friend as she talked about an upsetting phone call she received Tuesday morning.

"I was so upset, I didn't know what to do," she said of the call letting her know that Harry Belafonte had died.

Michael was so saddened because of the role that Belafonte played in her life growing up in West Philadelphia.

"I knew Harry Belafonte since I was a little girl," she said.

Michael would often spend days with him in West Philadelphia when Belafonte visited the man who was like her uncle: Paul Robeson.

SEE ALSO: Legendary singer, civil rights activist Harry Belafonte dies at 96

He was an entertainer and activist who was the blueprint for Belafonte.

"Paul Robeson was really the figure that Belafonte looked up to," said Michael. "I mean he just worshiped Uncle Paul."

Belafonte was beloved by Hollywood stars and everyday people like Ducky Birts, who was born in Camden and was very active in the civil rights movement in New Jersey and Philadelphia.

On Tuesday afternoon, he flipped through an old scrapbook containing a photo of him with Belafonte at a fundraiser for Martin Luther King Jr.

"He was not self-serving," said 87-year-old Birts. "And he gave himself to the world."

Belafonte also gave Birts a word of encouragement in his fight for justice.

"(He said), 'Boy you got a lot of fire in you, boy. You got to stick with that!'" Birts recalled.

The silky-voiced entertainer knew his stardom was a draw and he used it to draw attention to important causes until his final days.

"He was the kind that always had time for people," said Michael.

Belafonte served as honorary chairperson of the Paul Robeson 125th birthday celebration gala in Philadelphia less than two weeks ago.

"Harry smiled and nodded that he would be honorary chair," said Janice Sykes-Ross, executive director of the Paul Robeson House and Museum.

Belafonte wasn't well enough to attend the gala, but his daughter, Gina Belafonte, addressed the crowd and talked about her father.

"It was so emotional, and now we know why," said Sykes-Ross. "I'm so glad we were able to pay tribute to him. Probably one of the last events to do that."

The West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and the Paul Robeson House issued a statement calling Harry Belafonte a "national treasure" and an "icon."

They say his daughter is carrying on his legacy by using the family's public platform to fight for social justice.