MURIEL BURRELL SMITH
FEBRUARY 23, 1923 - SEPTEMBER 13, 1985
Born in Harlem, New York City, Muriel Burrell Smith made her first major appearance at the age of 14 on the Major Bowes Amateur Hour. At the age of 16 she was admitted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, graduating in 1946. She made her Broadway debut while still a student, creating the title role in Carmen Jones (1943); she remained with the production for 14 months. In 1947 she appeared in Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock and in productions of the American Negro Theatre (ANT). She was also a prolific “ghost” singer in Hollywood; she voiced roles in Moulin Rouge (1953), The Battle of the River Plate (1956), and South Pacific (Bloody Mary, 1958). As with most singers performing these roles, she received no recognition in the film credits. She spent considerable time in London in the 1950s, performing in the London revue and on the recital stage. She also starred in Drury Lane productions of South Pacific and The King and I. In 1957 she became the first Black singer to sing the role of Carmen at Covent Garden.
After intense racist backlash to the integration rulings of 1957, particularly in Little Rock, AR and Atlanta, GA, Ms. Smith turned to activism and spent the remainder of her life fighting for social justice. She declined a role in MGM’s Porgy and Bess, stating it did not “enhance the dignity of her people.” She joined Moral Re-Armament (MRA, renamed Initiatives of Change in 2001), a moral and religious movement, and performed for the organization in Caux, Switzerland. She dedicated her performances to the ideal of a morally united humanity. She was a co-creator of The Crowning Experience, a film based on the life of educator and activist Mary MacLeod Bethune; this work was shown to integrated audiences in Atlanta and is credited with diffusing some of the racial tension in that city. She ended her career as a faculty member at Virginia Union University.
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