In the spring of 2010, I accepted a job with a student tour company to lead a group of middle schoolers from Anniston, Alabama, around New York City. This group wanted a tour that highlighted Black history and culture, and I had been a professional NYC tour guide for more than 15 years at that time, so I knew how to configure tours for each group’s special interests.
I pulled out the “Harlem Renaissance Map/Poster/Guide,” a map that details famous sites of Harlem and made plans to visit the Apollo Theater and the Harriet Tubman memorial and statues honoring Adam Clayton Powell and Duke Ellington. I wanted to tell the kids about some of the hundreds of famous people who had worked or lived in Harlem, especially during its long history of being the epicenter of African American culture.
I prayed hard for this group. They were coming from far away and had invested their money on an expensive field trip in order to learn as much as possible about their heritage. I was committed to trying my best to make sure their trip was a blessing.
Two days before the kids arrived, on May 9, 2010, one of Harlem’s most famous performers passed away. “Lena Horne, Singer Who Blazed Trail to Hollywood, Dies at 92” was a front-page headline of the New York Times the next day. “Another icon gone,” I thought.
I had always enjoyed watching Horne’s performances and looking at glamorous pictures of her in her prime. But I had become a bona fide fan when I had lucked into cheap-seat tickets for “Lena: The Legacy,” an all-star salute to Horne at the Lincoln Center in October 1999. A collection of stars, including Jessye Norman, Gregory Peck, and Ossie Davis, honored Horne through song, dance and written tributes, detailing how she had battled racism throughout her film career, been a champion in the Civil Rights movement, and endured a lot of criticism for marrying a white man during a time when interracial marriages were unacceptable.
The next day, I met the kids from Alabama, 46 attentive, respectful kids clad in matching neon-green shirts. Over the next three days we visited the City’s most famous landmarks and attended a showing of “The Lion King” on Broadway, and I became very fond of these appreciative, respectful kids. However, I was less than thrilled with the brightly colored shirts the kids were required to wear every day. It was supposed to help us keep the kids together, but I cringed at the attention I attracted while leading a river of brightly clad children through busy city streets.
Although I wove in Black history information throughout the tour, we saved our visit to Harlem for the final day, May 14. As I skimmed the newspaper that morning during breakfast, I noticed a small item announcing that the funeral for Lena Horne would be at 10 that morning at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue. Heading into Harlem on the bus later that morning, I suddenly got an idea.
I approached the tour chaperones and explained that we were near the church where Horne’s funeral service would soon begin. “Why don’t we try to stand in front of the church and see if we can see any stars as they walk into the church?” The tour leaders readily agreed, so we pulled over near the church, and I ushered a throng of kids in bright orange shirts to the median where a few hundred other people had gathered.
We clumped together, craning our necks to see who was exiting the string of black sedans and limos that pulled up to the church. About five minutes after we had arrived, an African American man in a suit and an earpiece approached me. “Who is this group?”
“It’s a middle school group from Alabama who are up here visiting,” I offered meekly, not sure why he was asking. “The group wanted to pay their respects to Mrs. Horne.”
He surveyed the kids, said something into his earpiece, and then bellowed, “You! Come, follow me.”
The chaperones stared quizzically at me, and I shrugged and motioned for everyone to follow the man with the earpiece. We trooped back across Park Avenue and followed him up the staircase to the front doors. He opened the doors to the in-progress funeral service and led us down the side aisle to the very first pews. I recognized Vanessa Williams, Chita Rivera, Cicely Tyson, and Dionne Warwick as we made our way to the front.
I kept glancing back at the chaperones behind me, who looked as shocked and wide-eyed as I felt. Most of the children just appeared bewildered. We silently filed into the pews, filling three full rows. An usher appeared and handed us programs.
The mood was somber and quiet, and our group’s bright orange shirts really stood out in a church where everyone else was wearing black. Our group joined in the congregational hymns and responsive Bible readings then sat respectfully as Broadway superstar Audra McDonald sang and Jenny Lumet, Horne’s granddaughter, spoke. She was followed by former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, the city’s first Black mayor. Then came Congressman John Lewis, a Civil Rights icon. Several Tuskegee Airmen, the famous group of World War II African American pilots, gave a special salute.
The speakers used their time to recount inspiring stories about Lena Horne and her battles with racism and her work to lift up others. Dinkins said, “We will feel her presence every time a voice is raised in protest when any person of color is unfairly treated and judged by the color of her skin instead of the content of her character.”
While we learned a lot about her work as a social justice advocate, it was clear that Ms. Horne’s faith journey was the force that guided her through her long life. Since Ms. Horne chose the hymns, we sang the words of “Shall We Gather at the River,” “Let Us Break Bread Together,” and “In Christ There is No East or West” through a new lens. We also felt her presence through the scriptures she chose, and her faith shone through readings from Isaiah, Psalm 23, Philippians 3, and the Gospel of John Chapter 20.
It was clear through the presiding pastors’ words that St. Ignatius was her home parish, and that she attended regularly. It was a moving, deeply spiritual service — one that certainly had an impact on the tour group. The incredible church, with roots from 1851, was dedicated in December of 1898 and declared a NYC landmark as well as placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980. It was not only a stunning place to attend the funeral, but more importantly, we experienced God through the beauty of the service. I watched the children constantly scan their surroundings in wonder, which made me cry tears of joy.
The service ended after about 90 minutes, and we raced the group down to the restrooms (they were, after all, kids). As I stood in the hallway, the same man who had led us into the church reappeared. “You’ve been invited to the reception,” he said. “It’s here in the church. It can accommodate all of you.”
It was almost noon, and we had a lot of places in Harlem to visit before the group was scheduled to leave at 3:00. “What do you think?” I asked a teacher standing next to me.
“Oh, heck yeah,” she responded.
We gathered the kids and followed the man to the reception in the church’s fellowship hall. There were far fewer people at the reception, although I recognized several celebrities. The kids made a beeline to the buffet, while several chaperones struck up conversations with others at the reception. Lena Horne’s daughter, Gail Lumet Buckley, spoke to several of the children. Even from across the room I could see her gentle hospitality.
Suddenly, one of the Tuskegee Airmen bellowed, “Children! I want to talk to you! I want you to talk to you about your future. How you’re going to change this country and be the people you need to be!” As the children stood awestruck, this spry veteran told them about the hardships he had faced and his lifelong fight for equal rights. He wanted them to appreciate and benefit from his hard knocks, to dream bigger, and to pay it forward.
As he was talking to the kids, the head teacher whispered to me. “When I was in the bathroom stall, I heard someone at the sink ask another, ‘who are all those kids in there? And what’s with the orange shirts?’ The other lady said, ‘Oh, that’s a Black school who came all the way up from Alabama in the hopes they could attend the funeral to pay respects to Lena. A security guard lobbied for them to get in, and Lena’s daughter said it was okay.’”
We looked at each other and laughed. “Praise the Lord for those pukey orange shirts! It made us stand out,” I said, but added seriously, “God was in the details, and His hand brought all of this together, it’s clear. But I’m so sad we won’t get to Harlem. I know that’s what you came here to see.”
She looked me square in the eye and said, “Harlem will always be here, and New York City will always be here. No, this is what we hoped they could experience in a way we never thought possible. It’s a priceless gift. Thank you.”
When the group headed back to Alabama, I sat down on a staircase and began to cry, overwhelmed by God’s bounty at the priceless and completely unexpected gift we had received.
“Those kids might be too young to know who Lena Horne is,” I thought, “but they will remember the stories they heard here today of sacrifice and hard work that allows their generation to dream bigger and go further. And I believe they recognized God’s splendor shining through that wonderful service, as we heard about how Lena Horne’s faith was tied to her work.”
Horne’s bravery and sacrifice have not been forgotten in the years since her death, and her legacy was further written into history when the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in the heart of Times Square was renamed the Lena Horne Theatre on November 1, 2022. A block party and special performances commemorated the name change of the 1925 venue, which became the first Broadway theater to be named after a Black woman.
The Nederlander Organization, which owns the theatre, said the name will introduce new generations of theatergoers “to the legendary Lena Horne, an entertainer who broke barriers for other Black women to follow in her footsteps, and through this recognition will continue to inspire future generations of theatergoers.”
We’ll forever feel the impact of Lena Horne’s life. She broke down barriers for so many, including my precious students from Alabama, who had the good fortune to wear gaudy shirts that helped them gain entry into a funeral they’ll never forget.