July 14th in (Feminist) History

32045167-51a08892-640On this day in 1925 was the birth of Sheila Guyse, an African-American actress and singer who was known for her performances in several all-black films (at the time were known as “race films”). Sheila was born in Forest, Mississippi, and later moved to New York City with her parents, where she worked at a store right across from the Apollo Theatre. According to her daughter, she also lived for some time in a Harlem rooming house with Billie Holiday.

She began her career in show business when she started performing in amateur shows and won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater. Eventually, she debuted at a nightclub named Club Zombie, in Detroit in 1945. In her short time in Hollywood, she starred in three independent all-Black films (“race films”) they included: Boy! What a Girl! In 1947, Sepia Cinderella in 1947, and Miracle in Harlem in 1948.  In “Sepia Cinderella”, said to be her best role, she played a girl next door who is overlooked at first by the love interest, a musician played by singer Billy Daniels.

Though not a trained actress, she was said to have a lot of natural talent. She debuted on Broadway in 1945 with Memphis Bound, opposite Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and later appeared on Broadway in both Finian’s Rainbow and Lost in the Stars, which won an Outer Circle Critics Award. She was said to have a beautiful singing voice, and was on the cast recordings for both those productions. She also released an album of standards called “This is Sheila”, released by MGM Records in 1958, a decade after her biggest period of popularity.

guyse-1-obit-1-master1050-v2She was often compared to Dorothy Dandridge, a popular black actress at the time. Sheila was said to be more talented, but was never given the same opportunities in Hollywood.  She was married three times; her second husband, Kenneth Davis, was a white dancer and they were featured in the magazine Jet, in an article called “Negro Women with White Husbands”. It was with her third husband—a NY sanitation worker who used to follow her in his garbage truck– that she had two children. It was also after marrying him that she stopped performing, as he did not want her to have a career. She became involved with religion, and they remained together until his death in 2012. She died herself in 2013, at the age of 88, from complications with Alzheimer’s.

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