She was born Sarah Lou Harris in Wilkesboro, North Carolina in 1926. Her father was a house painter and a cotton mill worker. I could not find out what her mother did, if anything besides raise Sara (her name was originally spelled Sarah, but she eventually dropped the “h”), her two sisters and a brother. Sara was an ambitious, beautiful, smart girl who wanted to do good, for herself and as she said, “to help my own people.”
In Greensboro, North Caroline she studied at Bennett College and earned a B.A. Even though her grades were stellar, classmates predicted she would become a high fashion model. But first she taught third grade for a year in Wilkesboro eventually moving to New York City to earn her master’s degree at Colombia University. To help pay for her education she began modeling, acting, dancing, even appearing on radio and television. Perhaps she thought it would only be a sideline until she earned her degree. Education was very important to her.
With her stunning looks, she was quickly swept into the high fashion world in New York. She earned the distinction of being the first black model at the New York buyers fashion show. She was one of the original Branford Lovelies, twelve African American women models at the first licensed African American modeling agency.
In the 1940's Sara’s career soared. She was featured in a Lucky Strike ad. Posters of her advertising the cigarettes only appeared in black neighborhoods. She lamented “there is still so much room for improvement. It’s so gratifying to see people of color given dignified jobs.” (I could not find a copy of the ad) She neither smoked nor drank, unusual for the time of cocktail parties and pre-cancer warnings on cigarette packages.
A partial list of her jobs included covers for Jet, Ebony, Tan and Hue. Ebony, in 1949 declared her the “Most Beautiful Negro Woman in America.” She was well liked for her warmth, her compassion and intelligence. She always appeared well-dressed, favoring pastel colors because they made her “feel alive.”
Apparently, she was also a talented singer. She sang with the Sy Oliver Orchestra. Side note: Sy Oliver was known for his trumpet playing. He recorded vocals, started his own band, conducted songs for Ella Fitzgerald and composed many songs, including the hit “T’aint What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It).”
In 1946 Sara toured with Noble Sissle for USO shows. Sissle was an American composer, singer, and bandleader. Sissle, along with a partner worked on “Shuffle Along” a jazz musical revue on Broadway which became the first major hit musical by and about African Americans. Josephine Baker would perform in it.
As Sarah Harris, she acted in the 1947 film “Rhythm in a Riff” as the love interest. She hosted a daily “Mr. and Mrs.” show on the radio with her husband Buddy Bowser. The marriage was brief.
In 1958 Sara appeared in a fashion show in British Guiana. It was there she met John Carter, a Guyanese lawyer who would become her second husband. Carter became a Queen’s Counsel in 1962 and knighted in 1966 turning Sara into a “Lady.” They would have two sons.
Living in Guyana she maintained a full schedule. She hosted a radio interview program “Sara’s Salon.” She continued to put on fashion shows, very much interested in current styles and keeping up. She opened a “charm school.” Her most repeated advice to girls was to “go for the natural look.” She became the first African American woman to serve as chatelaine of an embassy when her husband was appointed first ambassador to the US by Guyana.
She remained active and busy, not only entertaining but organizing fashion shows, speaking at schools, and charity work. “Being a woman of color, I particularly love working with young people and showing them ways that they can be proud of their appearance.”
Moving onto London because of Sir John’s work, she continued fund-raising, organizing shows, etc.
Her advice for those that wanted to follow in her fashionable steps in the public eye:
“Being a pretty girl gives one no excuse for being an immoral or careless girl. It is no more difficult for a pretty girl to be nice than it is for an ordinary one. . .” she believed it was important to get an education before becoming a model, actor, whatever.
In her later years she suffered from Alzheimer’s and passed away in December of 2016, at age 93 in Maryland.
#BLM #BlackLivesMatter #models #pride
Honored for her work inspiring women, in 2020 Zemeckis will be awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor in part for “sharing and preserving stories of women who were once marginalized and stigmatized . . .” but due to her work “these women are now celebrated for their independence and personal agency.” The Medal is officially recognized by both Houses of Congress and is one of our nation’s most prestigious awards. Past recipients include Presidents Clinton and Reagan, Elie Wiesel, Sen. John McCain and HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco.
www.lesliezemeckis.com for more of her work.