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Beah Richards

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Beah Richards
Richards on The Bill Cosby Show (1970)
Beulah Elizabeth Richardson

(1920-07-12)July 12, 1920
DiedSeptember 14, 2000(2000-09-14) (aged 80)
Vicksburg, Mississippi, U.S.
Alma materDillard University
Years active1955–2000
Notable workGuess Who's Coming to Dinner
Roots: The Next Generations
SpouseHugh Harrell Jr. (divorced)

Beulah Elizabeth Richardson (July 12, 1920 – September 14, 2000), known professionally as Beah Richards and Bea Richards, was an American actress of stage, screen, and television. She was also a poet, playwright, author and activist.

Richards was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her supporting role in the film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1968, as well as winning two Primetime Emmy Awards for her guest roles in the television series Frank's Place in 1988 and The Practice in 2000. She also received a Tony Award nomination for her performance in the 1965 production of The Amen Corner.

Early life and education[edit]

Beulah Elizabeth Richardson was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi; her mother was a seamstress, and her father was a Baptist minister. In 1948, she graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans, and two years later, she moved to New York City.[1]

She was taught dance by Ismay Andrews.[2]


Her career began in 1955 when she portrayed an 84-year-old-grandmother in the off-Broadway show Take a Giant Step. She often played the role of a mother or grandmother, and continued acting her entire life. She appeared in the original Broadway productions of Purlie Victorious, The Miracle Worker, and A Raisin in the Sun.[3]

As a writer, she wrote the verse performance piece A Black Woman Speaks, a collection of 14 poems, in which she points out that white women played an important role in oppressing women of color. The play's first performance was in 1950 for the organization Women for Peace, a white women's organization in Chicago. Her first play was written in 1951 titled One Is a Crowd about a black singer who seeks revenge on a white man who destroyed her family. It was not produced until decades later.[4]

From the 1930s to the late 1950s, Richards was a member and organizer with the Communist Party USA in Los Angeles after befriending artist Paul Robeson. She is among the Black women who "actively participated in movements affiliated with the CPUSA" between 1917's Bolshevik Revolution and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 revelations.[5] She was later a sponsor of the National United Committee to Free Angela Davis.[5]

Richards was known professionally as Beah Richards,[6] and is also referred to in several sources as Bea Richards.[2][7][8]

Notable movie appearances include The Amen Corner (1965), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), Hurry Sundown, The Great White Hope, Beloved and In the Heat of the Night. She appeared in Roots: The Next Generations as Cynthia Murray Palmer, the grandmother of Alex Haley.

She made numerous guest television appearances, including roles on Beauty and the Beast, The Bill Cosby Show, 227 (TV series), Sanford and Son, Benson, Designing Women, The Facts of Life, The Practice, Murder, She Wrote, The Big Valley and ER (as Dr. Peter Benton's mother.)

Recognition and awards[edit]

Richards was nominated for a Tony Award for her 1965 performance in James Baldwin's The Amen Corner.[9]

She received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Mrs. Mary Prentice, Sidney Poitier's mother in the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.[1]

She was the winner of two Emmy Awards, one in 1988 for her appearance on the series Frank's Place and another in 2000 for her appearance on The Practice.[1]

Death and legacy[edit]

Richards died from emphysema in her hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi at the age of 80,[10][11] less than a month after winning an Emmy award.

In the last year of her life, Richards was the subject of a documentary created by actress Lisa Gay Hamilton. The documentary Beah: A Black Woman Speaks was created from over 70 hours of their conversations. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the AFI Film Festival.[12]


Feature films
Year Title Role Notes
1958 The Mugger Grecco Maid
1959 Take a Giant Step May Scott
1962 The Miracle Worker Viney the Maid Uncredited
1963 Gone Are the Days! Idella Landy
1967 Hurry Sundown Rose Scott
1967 In the Heat of the Night Mama Caleba
1967 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Mrs. Prentice Nominated — Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress
Nominated — Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture
1970 The Great White Hope Mama Tiny NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
1972 The Biscuit Eater Charity Tomlin
1973 A Dream For Christmas Grandma Bessie
1975 Mahogany Florence
1986 Inside Out Verna
1987 Big Shots Miss Hanks
1989 Homer and Eddie Linda Cervi
1989 Drugstore Cowboy Drug Counselor
1994 Out of Darkness Mrs. Cooper This was the second film Beah starred with Diana Ross, the first being "Mahogany"
1998 Beloved Baby Suggs Nominated — NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture

"There are a lot of movies out there that I would hate to be paid to do, some real demeaning, real woman-denigrating stuff. It is up to women to change their roles. They are going to have to write the stuff and do it. And they will."

– Beah Richards


  1. ^ a b c Brian Baxter (25 October 2000). "Obituary: Beah Richards". the Guardian. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  2. ^ a b DeFrantz, Thomas (1998). "To make black bodies strange: Social critique in concert dance of the Black Arts Movement" (PDF). Theatrical Interventions. p. 90.
  3. ^ Richards, Beah. "IBDB: Beach Richards". Internet Broadway Database. Retrieved 8 September 2023.
  4. ^ Barlow, Judith E. (2001). Plays by American Woman: 1930-1960. New York: Applause Theatre Book Publishers. p. xvii. ISBN 1-55783-164-5.
  5. ^ a b Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism, McDuffie, Erik S. "Throughout the Party, they advanced Black liberation, women's rights, decolonization, economic justice, peace, and international solidarity. The key figures in this story ... are Audley "Queen Mother" Moore, Louise Thompson Patterson, Thyra Edwards, Bonita Williams, Williana Burroughs, Claudia Jones, Esther Cooper Jackson, Beaulah Richardson (Beah Richards), Grace P. Campbell, Charlene Mitchell, and Sallye Bell Davis."
  6. ^ Beah Richards at IMDb
  7. ^ Coleman, Stanley R. (2003). Dashiki Project Theatre: black identity and beyond (PDF) (PhD). Louisiana State University – via LSU Doctoral Dissertations.
  8. ^ "Academy Awards Best Supporting Actress". Filmsite. Retrieved 1 September 2022.
  9. ^ The Broadway League. "Beah Richards - IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information". Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  10. ^ "Beah Richards, 80, Actress in Stalwart Roles". The New York Times. 16 September 2000. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  11. ^ "Beah Richards; Oscar Nominee for 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner'". Los Angeles Times. 16 September 2000. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  12. ^ Koehler, Robert (18 November 2003). "Beah: A Black Woman Speaks". Variety. Retrieved 4 May 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • Radicalism at the Crossroads: African American Women Activists in the Cold War (2011) by Dayo Gore

External links[edit]