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While the world mourns the death of actor and activist Betty White, many are learning about her advocacy on behalf of African-Americans. One particular way in which Ms. White refused to bow to systemic racism was by insisting Arthur Duncan, a Black dancer, remain on her 1950s show, The Betty White Show.

In 1954, Ms. White was pressured to replace Mr. Duncan, a dancer who went on to receive accolades for his performances on the Lawrence Welk show. Her reply to producers who wanted to replace him? “He stays,” she announced, standing up on behalf of Mr. Duncan and other Black dancers.

She then insisted that Mr. Duncan performed as frequently as possible on her show. In retaliation, however, her show was canceled later that year. 

Duncan credits Betty White for launching his career

In an interview with Steve Harvey in 2018, Mr. Duncan confirmed, “I was on the show, and they had some letters out of Mississippi and elsewhere that some of the stations would not carry the show if I was permitted to stay on there. Well, Betty wrote back and said, ‘Needless to say, we used Arthur Duncan every opportunity we could.’ ” 

However, in retaliation for her insistence that the world “live with it,” The Betty White Show was canceled later that year. Meanwhile, Ms. White and Mr. Duncan remained friendly, and eventually reunited in 2018 for a surprise TV revival of her show. 

For his part, Mr. Duncan credited Ms. White for jump-starting his career. In 1957, he was the first Black performer to join a USO tour for American troops stationed around the world, and later spent years on the Lawrence Welk show. 

Ms. Betty White died on December 31, 2021, at the age of 99. 

Erika Stone is a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program at the University of Oklahoma, and a graduate assistant at Schusterman Library. A Chess Memorial Scholar, she has a B.A. in Psychology...

One reply on “Betty White insisted on Black dancer for her 1950s show”

  1. Bravo Ms. White, bravo Mr. Duncan, bravo Ms. Stone

    Not noted but deserving of recognition is the role of southern white women in the fight for a just society, their society, not a foreigner’s.

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