New York Leaders: Bessie Buchanan

Portrait of Bessie Buchanan

Bessie Buchanan

Buchanan, a singer, dancer, and silent film actress, was elected to the New York State legislature in 1954, making her the first African-American woman elected to the Assembly. 

Buchanan enjoyed a 15-year theatrical career, starring in the musical “Shuffle Along” and dancing in the Cotton Club’s chorus line, before educator Mary McLeod Bethune asked her to work on the 1949 U.S. Senate campaign of Governor Herbert H. Lehman. The experience spurred her political activism. 

In the Assembly Buchanan introduced more than 150 bills, many focusing on civil rights and improving public education and neighborhoods. Later, Buchanan served as the State’s Human Rights Commissioner under Governor Nelson Rockefeller.