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Ellen Holly: Remembering a Luminary in American Television and Theatre

By Francis Page, Jr.

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    Dec. 15, 2023 (Houston Style Magazine) — Ellen Holly, a paragon of the arts and a herald of change in American entertainment, has left an indelible mark on the world with her passing at the age of 92.

A daughter of Manhattan born to the esteemed Holly family, Ellen’s lineage was steeped in pioneering spirits and civil rights activism. With ancestors like Susan Smith McKinney Steward, the first African American female doctor in New York State, and her great aunt Anna Arnold Hedgeman, an instrumental figure in the March on Washington, Holly’s path seemed destined to be groundbreaking.

Holly’s upbringing in Richmond Hill, Queens, was a prelude to her distinguished educational accomplishments as a graduate of Hunter College and a proud member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. Her early stage performances in New York City and Boston garnered critical acclaim, laying the foundation for a career that would see her shine on Broadway in productions like “Tiger Tiger Burning Bright” and “A Hand is on the Gate.”

Her pivotal role as Carla Gray on ABC’s “One Life to Live” shattered norms and carved a place for Black actors in a genre where they had been notably absent.

Holly’s portrayal of Carla, grappling with racial identity during the volatile 1960s, catapulted the soap opera to unprecedented heights and opened doors for more inclusive storytelling on television. Despite facing challenges and injustices, Holly’s legacy on the small screen was augmented by roles in “The Guiding Light” and “In The Heat of the Night,” and her voice resonated in the theater and in print, with contributions to The New York Times and her autobiography “One Life.”

Beyond the spotlight, Holly’s commitment to community and service shone brightly during her tenure as a librarian at the White Plains Public Library, a chapter of her life she re- counted with fondness. Her passing is a profound loss to the arts, her family, and the countless lives she touched. While there will be no funeral per her wishes, Ellen Holly’s life and contributions are celebrated far and wide, leaving a lega- cy that continues to inspire. Donations in her memory can be directed to The Obama Presidential Center or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, reflecting her enduring commitment to progress and compassion.

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