For many African Americans, the arts have served as outlets of freedom and artistic expression amid life’s joys and pains. With artistic excellence, these liberated expressions have become cultural artifacts spanning genres, depicting life and ancestral influences, evoking emotion, and inspiring social movements and communal engagement.
In honor of this year’s national Black History Month theme – “African American and the Arts” – the American Red Cross is highlighting five African Americans who used art and activism to empower communities, ensure equitable outcomes, and help drive change in support of our lifesaving mission.
Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)
Nicknamed “Satchmo,” Louis Armstrong was a world-famous jazz trumpeter and vocalist whose career spanned five decades and included a variety of songs such “Black and Blue,” “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World”.
In 1936, a historic flood devastated areas of Pittsburgh after the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers overflowed their banks. More than 100 citizens perished, nearly 3,000 were injured and over 100,000 buildings were destroyed.
Aware of the tragedy, Armstrong hosted a benefit concert in support of the Red Cross to aid urban communities impacted by the flood. The response of Armstrong and others to Red Cross disaster relief appeals helped raise nearly $8 million that year.
Armstrong continued to carry jazz music around the world by performing for troops during wartime and helping advance racial equality in the U.S.
Marian Anderson (1897 – 1993)
Marian Anderson was a world renown Grammy Award-winning contralto singer whose repertoire ranged from Black and American spirituals to classical. She became the first African American invited to sing at the White House and later to perform in concert before 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial.
In 1943, Anderson sang at the Red Cross World War II relief concert at Constitution Hall. The performance was historic in helping to evoke wartime unity, raise funds for the Red Cross and work towards racial equality and inclusion.
Hailed as one of the greatest singers of her time, Anderson continued to use her voice to advocate for freedom and equality. She later returning to the Lincoln Memorial to sing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” at the historic March on Washington in 1963, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Duke Ellington (1899 – 1974)
Edward “Duke” Ellington was a famous jazz pianist and composer whose career spanned 56 years. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Ellington gained a national profile through his orchestra's appearances at the Cotton Club in Harlem, NY and with the successful hit “It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing”.
As a musician, Ellington used his music to challenge modern-day stereotypes of Black entertainers by showcasing Black and artistic excellence. He also advocated for social justice causes and for Black youth to be given equitable rights of entry to segregated dance halls.
Ellington was also a supporter of the Red Cross. He recorded public service announcements in support of disaster services, frequently attended Red Cross rallies and played Red Cross benefit concerts in the 1940s – one of which was a Red Cross World War II benefit concert at Madison Square Garden in New York on April 6, 1943.
Maceo Jefferson (1898 – 1974)
Maceo Jefferson was an American jazz banjoist, guitar player and composer most known for his song “Chiquita”. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War I, and later became a member of Duke Ellington’s band, the Washingtonians.
Jefferson played in various bands both stateside and throughout Europe. The late 1930s and 1940s found him in France. Jefferson toured with different bands in France, England, Scotland, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, and Italy until the end of May 1940.
While in France during the early 1940s, Jefferson worked for the American Red Cross as a driver transporting those who were sick and injured. He also delivered food and medicine donated from the U.S. to civilians and prison camps as part of a massive relief effort launched ahead of World War II, in which more than 2.5 million children benefitted from donations of milk and clothing.
His career took a dramatic turn when the Nazis, under the Vichy government, imprisoned him three days after the U.S. declared war on Germany. Jefferson spent twenty-seven months in a German prison camp in France. In 1944, the Nazis released and sent Jefferson back to the U.S. where he eventually settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut. There, he continued to write songs and record music until his death on June 15, 1974.
Nikkolas Smith (1985 - )
Nikkolas Smith is a contemporary artist and children’s book author who depicts marginalized voices of African Americans, and the lives of those at the center of social justice matters. Some of his most famous depictions have included: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
In 2023, Smith was commissioned by the Red Cross to create an exclusive digital portrait entitled “Transfusion” in honor of World Sickle Cell Day. The portrait was inspired by the real life journeys of four sickle cell warriors who have received blood transfusions over the course of their lives.
“What stood out to me the most when speaking with these incredibly brave sickle cell warriors is how much constant pain they endure due to the malfunctioning cells in their body, but also the level of determination they have to maintain in order to push through until their next blood transfusion,” Smith said.
Smith’s goal is to help raise broader awareness about sickle cell disease and the role donors who are Black play in providing a compatible blood match.
Black Excellence Is in Our Blood
Commemorate Black History Month by rolling up a sleeve to give blood in support of patients with sickle cell disease and other conditions. Use the Red Cross Blood DonorApp, visit RedCrossBlood.org/OurBlood or call 1-800-RED CROSS (1-800-733-2767) to schedule an appointment today.
Those who come to give blood, platelets or plasma Feb. 1-29, 2023, will receive a $20 Amazon.com Gift Card by email. Join us in elevating Black Excellence this month: Discover and support Black-owned businesses on Amazon!
Terms apply for both offers. Visit rcblood.org/heart for details.