Was she still alive? The question lingered in the minds of 33 Hardy Elementary School’s fourth graders in San Diego, California after their teacher, Christine Bailey, introduced them to a woman they would not soon forget.
Bailey had set out earlier this year to teach her students about lesser known figures in Black History and stumbled upon a woman whose beauty had graced the covers of Jet magazine and held spreads in Life and Time. A woman who was a pioneer, as the first black singer to perform at the Casino Royale in Washington, D.C. and several hotels in Miami Beach during the early 50s. Her nickname became the Black Marilyn Monroe. She is, Joyce Bryant.
“The littler known people were just as instrumental,” Bailey said. “We should pay homage to them and celebrate what they did.”
Bailey and her students became enamored with Bryant’s style — sexy, with a purpose. Bryant’s signature look included a skintight dress and stunning silver hair.
“In those past times, and some would say they still linger, a woman of Joyce Bryant’s color was not automatically considered as beautiful and gorgeous as she was,” said Jim Byers, Bryant’s biographer and producer of an upcoming documentary called Joyce Bryant: The Lost Diva.
Bryant said her flashy style served a higher purpose — to open stage doors previously closed to Black singers at white-only clubs. Although some of her songs were banned from the radio for reasons more complex than their alleged provocative content, Byers said, her vulnerability and effervescent presence transcended all barriers. Bryant was a hit.
Known as the pit bull of research by her colleagues, Bailey had taken to the Web to find out if she was still alive. In all biographies of Bryant, no date of death was listed. She finally came across the 50 Shades of Black blog where director, Carlton Mackey, had recently posted about meeting Joyce Bryant.
After a few emails, Mackey then connected her with Bryant’s niece and caretaker, Robyn LaBeaud. Black History Month for fourth graders at Hardy Elementary got a lot more interesting. Bailey shared her discovery with the class and the children wrote reports and Bryant’s life while her music played in the classroom. Then, with LaBeaud’s blessing, they wrote and sent her letters asking questions about her life.
LaBeaud read each letter out loud to her “auntie,” but was interrupted by Bryant who laughed at questions about her dancing. She clarified, she was not a dancer. A singer and actress, yes. But not a dancer.
“I don’t know where they got that from,” she said.
Shortly after the letters were exchanged, Bailey and a colleague traveled to Los Angeles to meet Bryant in person. Although the students were not allowed to travel beyond city limits, Bailey shared the pictures, music, stories and joy she experienced meeting the celebrity when she returned.
“We felt like we were like little school girls meeting a super star,” Bailey said. “We were standing outside the house making sure we were on time.”
LaBeaud, a professional chef, cooked lunch for the visitors. They were invited to sit and eat on Bryant’s bed and they spoke with her for more than two hours.
“She’s just an absolute kick in the pants,” Bailey said. “She is as lively and wonderful and sassy as you would just imagine her.”
“I’ve taught for twenty-nine and a half years and I have never had history come to life through this whole process — playing her music, writing letters, then sitting on her bed with her.”
Although Bryant now has Alzheimer’s, she hasn’t forgotten her glory days. She shared stories of her years as an elite in the music industry — rubbing shoulders with other stars like Sydney Poitier, and giving voice lessons to Denzel Washington’s wife.
“She asked us a lot of questions, which made us feel just as important as she was,” Bailey said.
“She made you feel so very comfortable. And to hear how sad it was, her whole life how people took advantage. You’d never know those things when you meet her.”
Bailey made the two-hour trip back home listening to nothing but the sound of Bryant’s voice on her car’s stereo. She placed the two portraits she was given on the walls of her classroom. For certain assignments she still plays the music for the children.
On one special occasion, she and all her students stood up, pressing their legs together imitating Bryant’s iconic dress and sang along to her song. It was in that moment Bailey knew the “teaching moment” of a lifetime.
“I hope they learned that you can be what you want to be if you put your mind to it,” LeBeaud said.
“I think what she taught the kids, and what they picked up is you can be what you want to be. The sky is the limit.”
—Danielle B. Douez
Emory University Grad
BA Psychology 2013,
Freelance Writer & 50 Shades of Black Contributor
Meeting the Legendary Joyce Bryant by Carlton Mackey
Joyce Bryant: The Most Famous Woman I Never Heard Of by Carlton Mackey