Famed Calypso singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, who served in the Navy during World War II, died on Tuesday at the age of 96.
Belafonte, whose repertoire of hit songs includes “Jump in the Line” and “Banana Boat Song,” left high school in 1944 to enlist in the Navy on the day after his 17th birthday.
His time in the Navy proved to be a difficult experience, where he faced the institutionalized racism that he would later fight against.
The U.S. military was racially segregated at the time, and black service members were officially treated as unequal to their white counterparts. Most black sailors were assigned support roles, and Belafonte was assigned to Port Chicago, California, to load ships taking part in the Pacific War, according to a Feb 2022 Defense Department news story about Belafonte.
He arrived at Port Chicago not long after the base was severely damaged by an apocalyptic explosion that took place on July 14, 1944, as two ships were being loaded with munitions. Two-thirds of the 320 people killed by the blast were black sailors. Another 290 people were injured.
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“It was the worst home front disaster of World War II, but almost no one knows about it or what followed,” Belafonte described the disaster, according to the Defense Department news story.
Shortly after the disaster, 328 ordnance battalion sailors refused to work until conditions at Port Chicago improved. Ultimately, 50 of the sailors were referred to a general court-martial for mutiny and sentenced to prison. Those sailors were later released in January 1946.
It’s clear Belafonte was deeply affected by what happened at Port Chicago.
“The Port Chicago mutiny was one of America’s ugliest miscarriages of justice, the largest mass trial in naval history, and a national disgrace,” Belafonte later recalled, according to the Defense Department news story.
Belafonte ultimately spent 18 months in the Navy. At one point, he was sent to a Navy prison in Virginia for two weeks for minor offenses, where he saw the U.S. military treating German prisoners of war better than black service members, according to the Washington Post.
On Tuesday, a Navy spokesperson provided Task & Purpose with a statement in honor of Belafonte’s life and legacy.
“We’re thankful for his service to the Navy and nation,” the spokesperson said. “As we wish another member of the greatest generation fair winds and following seas, we remember his legacy of service – both in an out of uniform.”
After the war, Belafonte used his GI Bill benefits to take classes at the New York School Dramatic Workshop and began singing at nightclubs to help pay the bills. His first major hit was “Calypso” in 1956.
Belafonte also became an active civil rights activist, working with Martin Luther King Jr., although he later became estranged from King’s children.
He also became such an outspoken critic of President George W. Bush that in 2002 he called Secretary of State Colin Powell a “house slave” for serving in Bush’s cabinet.
Among those who paid tribute to Belafonte on Tuesday was Bernice King, the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr., who also tweeted a picture of Belafonte accompanying her mother Coretta Scott King at her father’s funeral.
She also recalled how Belafonte would pay for babysitters to watch the King children, adding: “I won’t forget…Rest well, sir.”
UPDATE: 04/25/2023; this story was updated with a statement from the Navy about Harry Belafonte.
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