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The Passing Of A Pioneer

As the official observances of Black History Month wound down over this last weekend, came the passing of one of the most influential black men of this century. He's not widely remembered, but thanks to him, generations of African-Americans have found work in the theater and in musicÂ…all because of the trail he blazed as a performer and as an educator.

His name was Todd Duncan. He was the Jackie Robinson of opera, the first black ever to sing with a white company. Ten years before Marian Anderson made her famous debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Todd Duncan sang with the New York City Opera.

Over the years, opera would become an important testing ground for integration in America. Black singers and white singers worked side by side.

And opera became the first performing art in which, in most cases, the color of a man's skin didn't determine the roles he could play. Opera houses in America took the attitude that talent was the most important consideration. And Todd Duncan had talent aplenty.

That might have been enough trail-blazing for some, but Todd Duncan also created two of Broadway's most important leading roles for African-American men.

First came the role of Porgy, in the Gershwin Brothers' Porgy and Bess. Although the piece is viewed with mixed emotions today, it was ground-breaking in its time. And for about two generations, if you were African-American and you wanted a career in theatre, you'd wind up appearing in Porgy and Bess.

Todd Duncan's other major role was Stephen Kumalo, the Black preacher in Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars, an adaptation of the anti-apartheid novel, Cry, the Beloved Country. After the show's triumph on Broadway, the producers had to cancel a national tourÂ…because not enough hotels could be found around the country which would accept the show's racially mixed cast.

Apart from his distinguished career on the stage, Todd Duncan was a great and tireless teacher. Beginning at Howard University in the 1930's, and continuing at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute up until a few years ago, Todd Duncan gave generations of young people, many of them minority students and underprivileged, the tools they needed to build great careers like his.

It's often said that the most important steps in Black History in this country have been employment and education. Todd Duncan led the way in both.

Dan Rather reporting may be heard daily on many of the CBS Radio Network stations.

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