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Hugh Hurd: Artist and Civil Rights Hero for the Village and Beyond

“The show began and the performers, illuminated with the spirit, hit the stage and blazed. Comfortable with the material of their own routines, comedians made the audience howl with pleasure and singers delighted the listeners with familiar romantic songs. The revue, which is what the show had become, moved quickly until a scene from Langston Hughes’s The Emperor of Haiti brought the first note of seriousness. Hugh Hurd, playing the title role, reminded us all that although as black people we had a dignity and a love of life, those qualities had to be defended constantly.”

– Quote from The Heart of a Woman by Maya Angelou, 1997, New York, Bantam Books, p 78.

Hugh Hurd’s impact on the Village, the United States, and the world can still be felt today. He worked alongside Dr. Maya Angelou and Godfrey Cambridge to produce a benefit at the Village Gate for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and SCLC (the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.) The benefit was an early vote of confidence in Dr. King’s work and one of the first fundraisers for the civil rights leader in New York. We have a record of this event in Dr. Maya Angelou’s fourth autobiographical work, The Heart of a Woman. Through her words, we see a human perspective of this heroic work. In the book we meet Hugh Hurd, who served as the director of this historic event and a critical force in the civil rights movement.

Hugh Hurd was a longtime Village resident who worked across the arts, labor, and civil rights movements to affect major improvements in how African Americans are treated in America. He was an artist who lived at Westbeth in the West Village, and is memorialized on their website with this quote:

“To have known him, as a worker in the arts and as a neighbour in New York’s fabled Greenwich Village, will be to miss Hugh a great deal. He could talk you into a daze, on a street corner, in the lobby of your apartment building or his, below a marquee or outside a coffee shop. Hugh never met the conversation he didn’t like or was willing to end. He was the Harlem kid who wanted a world as old as human communication, a place where Shakespeare had been comfortable, and Olivier, Poitier, and Eugene O’Neill, too.”
–Clayton Riley, The Guardian, July 25, 1995

Want to see Hugh Hurd perform? We are lucky to have the 1959 film Shadows by John Casstrevertes to see his artistic work immortalized for generations to come. You can also see Hurd in a supporting role in the 1968 Sidney Poitier film “For Love of Ivy.”  These are just two ways to connect to the work of this civil rights leader who was born in New York on February 11, 1925.

Alongside his talent as an actor on stage and screen, Hugh Hurd was one of the founders of Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers. In 1962 he co-founded this organization alongside his producing partner from the SCLC benefit, Godfrey Cambridge. The formation and work of the Committee influenced Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to hold his historic hearings on racial bias in the entertainment industry.

Hugh Herd’s determination and confidence, as described in passages throughout The Heart of a Woman, can also be seen in Alice Neel’s 1964 portrait of him. The portrait was acquired by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas in 2017.

The account by Dr. Angleou of her and Hurd’s work together helps us understand their impact better. In the book, there are scenes that detail both the logistical and emotional work that was necessary to advance civil rights in America. In one scene, Angelou, Cambridge, and Hurd gather after meeting with leaders from SLCC to discuss their next steps after the success of their first benefit show: “Godfrey, Hugh and I went to a bar across the street. Hugh said, ‘You were right, girl. I was proud of you and you know I meant what I said. I’ll be up there to help whenever I can.’” (Angelou, 80)

Hugh Hurd’s generosity of spirit and strong leadership can be felt in that quote. Hurd in many ways embodied the combined artist/activist spirit which is so deeply embedded in our neighborhoods. In this way he is aligned with many prominent African American figures who found a home here, from James Baldwin to Lorraine Hansberry, and so many more.

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