Shirley Temple Black, who began her acting career at age 3 and became a massive box-office draw before turning 10 (commanding an unprecedented salary of $50,000 per film), passed away today at the age of 85 of natural causes at her Woodside, California, home.
Her star shone brightest as a toddler, besting adult stars such as Clark Gable and Bing Crosby at the box office. Shirley’s career peaked from 1935 through 1938 as she gave hope to a the country muddling through the impact of the Great Depression. By age 22 she had retired from making movies but this was not the end of her turn in the spotlight.
Reinventing herself, she embarked on a new career as a foreign diplomat, beginning with serving as part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations from 1969 to 1974. She was appointed U.S. ambassador to Ghana from 1974 to 1976, and served as U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia from 1989 to 1992.
Black led a remarkable life. It is ironic, perhaps, that one of the things for which she is best remembered is her on-screen partnership came with the great tap dance master Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; two of their four films, The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel, both were made in 1935.
As reported by thegrio.com, “The pairing of the elderly Robinson with schoolgirl Temple was a Hollywood milestone. In her 2012 Huffington Post piece “Shall We Dance? Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson: Hollywood’s First Interracial Couple,” Constance Valis Hill, author of Tap Dancing America, A Cultural History, referencing the staircase tap dancing scene in The Little Colonel:
“She took his hand and learned his steps, and they danced their way into cinema history as the first interracial tap-dancing couple, albeit a 6-year-old white girl and 57-year-old black man.”
They may have danced together on screen, but the relationship of their characters was in no way equal. As Ronda Racha Penrice noted in her piece on The Grio, “That Robinson comes across as a toy to Temple’s characters, only there to entertain and delight them, is a huge disservice and perpetuates the myth that black people are happiest when serving whites and, thus, are incapable of having feelings and thoughts beyond that purpose.”
Robinson may have played a subsurvient character in these films, but this did not reflect his real life, according to thegrio.com. For instance, he was notorious for refusing to allow restaurants to not serve him. He contributed to numerous black causes and was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America in addition to co-founding the Negro Leagues Baseball team, the New York Black Yankees. On top of that, he was a member of New York’s famed 369th Infantry, better known as the Harlem Hellfighters, during World War I.
So let’s raise a Shirley Temple cocktail in honor of a woman who left an enduring legacy, and at the same time commit ourselves to supporting an end to racism in all its ugly guises, onscreen and off, during Black History Month and all year long.