1950's: The Era That Changed America

For African Americans, the 1950s was the beginning of a trend of change that lasted for decades. The push for greater civil rights in the 50s began with the landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955-1956) and the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. In music, Little Richard crowned himself the King of Rock and Roll and if Little Richard was king, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Bo Didley could also be considered royalty. African American women boldly sported the latest fashions of the day--pinched waistlines, wide-rimmed hats and spiked high heels. The winds of change that began in the 50s can still be felt today.



The fifties brought tunes from jukebox speakers, and had folks twisting and shouting on checkerboard dance floors.
A gentleman might just snag a kiss in one of these classic photobooths from the fifties.
Almost everybody hung out at the soda fountain!


From Powerful ballads, gutting wrenching blues to high-energy music that forced hips and bodies to gyrate as fast as possible and as long as possible – Black musicians were key forces on the American music scene during the 1950’s.


In 1950 ....
A House cost: $14,500
Average income: $3,216
Ford car: $1339-$2262
Admiral "home entertainment" TV system: $549.50
12" records: $4.85
10" records: $2.85
Milk: .82 cents
Gas: .20 cents
Bread .14 cents
Postage stamp: .03 cents
Sirloin steak: $.77 lb
The population of the world is 2.52 billion

Walt Disney's Cinderella opens in theaters.

Sugar Pops are introduced.

RCA 45 RPM record attachment

Silly Putty is introduced!

Pillsbury and General Mills offered prepared cake mixes.

CBS begins broadcasting in color.

Ball-O-Fire gumballs are available.

The stuff of grilled cheese sandwiches arrived, KRAFT® Deluxe process cheese slices are introduced.

Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the Port Authority open in NYC

Seeburg starts selling jukeboxes that play 45 RPM records. This is the jukebox that ends up in the soda shops, bowling alleys and bars.

Nobel for literature awarded to William Faulkner .

Smokey the Bear gains national popularity.

Minute Rice arrives.

Haloid Corporation (later renamed Xerox) develops the first xerographic copy machine.

2,200 drive-in movie theatres, twice as many as in 1949.

Peanuts debuted on October 2, 1950.

Cartoonist Hank Ketcham created and introduces "Dennis the Menace."

10,500,000 TV sets in 10,400,000 homes.

The first self-service elevator is installed by Otis Elevator in Dallas.

Unemployment is 5.3%




Little Richard! What do you call Little Richard and how do you describe his position as one of the top 10 African American musicians in the 1950’s? Well he has been defined and described as this in his bio – “the originator, the emancipator, the architect of rock and roll.

Exploding into the American consciousness in the mid-50′s’…”awop-bop-a-loo-mop-alop-bam-boom”…he singlehandedly laid the foundation and established the rules for a new musical form: rock and roll.” Born in Macon, Georgia, aside from his flamboyant make up and extreme coiffed hair, Little Richard has a discography that includes: “Tutti Frutti,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Rip It Up,” “Lucille,” “Jenny Jenny,” “Keep A Knockin’”, “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and  “Ooh! My Soul.”


“The First Lady of Song” Ella Fitzgerald could do things with her voice that were unexplainable and amazing. Over 40 million albums sold and 13Grammy awards are just some of the highlights of her career. Her vocal style and range has been called: flexible, shockingly accurate, mind-boggling, ageless and wide ranging. From sultry ballads, jazz dipped in honey with defying scats – Ella Fitzgerald is still studied for explanation. 

Fitzgerald worked with Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Count Basie just to name a few. Ella Fitzgerald’s voice crossed demographic lines when it came to music lovers. It seems Lady Ella had a voice that all loved.



Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton (December 11, 1926 – July 25, 1984) was an American rhythm and blues singer and songwriter. She was the first to record the hit song "Hound Dog" in 1952. The song was #1 on the Billboard R&B charts for seven weeks in 1953. The B-side was "They Call Me Big Mama," and the single sold almost two million copies.

Three years later, Elvis Presley recorded his version, based on a version performed by Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. In a similar occurrence, she wrote and recorded "Ball 'n' Chain," which became a hit for her. Janis Joplin later recorded "Ball and Chain," and was a huge success in the late 1960s.


Duke Ellington – one does not think of jazz or Big Bands without thinking of Duke Ellington. Not only does he make the top 10 list of 1950’s African American musicians but he is widely considered one of the twentieth century’s best known African American celebrities.

As both a composer and a band leader, Ellington received numerous prestigious awards including: 13 Grammy Awards, the French Legion of Honor in 1973 and a United States Commemorative stamp. His best known titles include; It Don’t Mean a Thing if It Ain’t Got That Swing, Sophisticated Lady, Mood Indigo  and Satin Doll.