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South Carolina Superheroes: Eartha Kitt

In conjunction with the Hall of Heroes blockbuster exhibition and Black History Month, the State Museum is putting the spotlight on South Carolina heroes this February. While some have played heroes on film, all have been heroes in reality. Check back each week this February to get inspired and be sure to visit Hall of Heroes.

Kitt performs in a 1955 production of the Oscar Wilde play Salome. Image Courtesy the Dallas News.

Eartha Mae Kitt (1927-2008) was born in North, South Carolina, on Jan. 17, 1927. Kitt overcame tremendous obstacles in her early life. Her mother, Anna Mae Kitt, was just 14 years-old when she gave birth and Kitt never knew the identity of her white father. At eight, Kitt left the cotton fields of S.C. and moved to Harlem to live with an aunt.

Eartha Kitt escaped her unhappy childhood with talent, hard work, bravery and a bit of luck. A teacher helped her get into the New York School of Performing Arts, but she had to leave when the relationship with her aunt deteriorated. At 16, a friend dared her to audition for the Katherine Dunham Dance Troupe. Kitt earned her spot, performed around the world, and learned to sing in 10 languages. In Paris, she caught the eye of Orson Wells who called her, “the most exciting woman in the world.” Kitt later released best-selling albums and books and was a star both on stage and screen. Her most famous role included Cat Woman in the 1960s Batman television series. She is one of a handful of performers nominated for Grammy, Emmy and Tony Awards.

Kitt in her iconic role as Catwoman in the 1960s television show, Batman. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

Eartha Kitt was an international civil rights advocate. In the 1960s, she refused to perform for segregated audiences. While on tour, she met with youth groups, later becoming a spokesperson for the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), on behalf of abused children. During a White House meeting on juvenile delinquency, she voiced opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Within days, the CIA compiled a dossier on her and she was blackballed in America.

Kitt on the show, Orangeburg Inside and Out in 1997. Kitt revealed she did not know when she was born and had never found her birth certificate. Students from Benedict College in Columbia uncovered it for her. Kitt said, “I had no idea how I’d feel coming home. I left in tears, but it seems I’ve come home to love. I have been in over 108 countries and today you make me inextricably proud to say that I’m a South Carolinian.” Image courtesy The Times and Democrat

Kitt never regretted speaking out. She also faced criticism for touring South Africa during apartheid. Kitt responded that her integrated performances weakened the system and she raised money for black schools. In 1974, Kitt triumphantly returned to America and President Carter invited her back to the White House in 1978. She spent the next decades earning more accolades and continuously working until diagnosed with colon cancer in 2006. Kitt died two years later, at age 81 at her home Connecticut.