By Terrance Turner
Jan. 7, 2022
Legendary actor Sidney Poitier has died. He was 94.
Bahamas Foreign Minister Fred Mitchell confirmed the death to CBS News on Friday. Clint Watson, press secretary for the Prime Minister of the Bahamas, confirmed to CNN that Poitier died Thursday evening.
Poitier was born on Feb. 20, 1927, in Miami, Florida. The youngest of nine children, he was born to Evelyn and Reginald Poitier — “two uneducated farmers from Cat Island in the Bahamas. They had arrived in Miami some weeks before with about a hundred boxes of tomatoes they had grown picked, packed, crated, and accompanied,” he wrote in his 1980 memoir This Life.
He was very premature. “I weighted in at less than three pounds — a very peculiar kind of birth,” Poitier wrote. “The consensus indicated that I should not be expected to survive,” and thus his father bought a miniature casket for his funeral. But his mother wouldn’t hear of it. She went to a local palm reader, who told her: “Don’t worry about your son; he will survive and he will not be a sickly child[…] He will walk with kings. He will be rich and famous. Your name will be carried all over the world.”
In the meantime, Poitier and his parents rejoined six other kids in the Bahamas. His father used bat fertilizer and mixed it with topsoil to grow tomato plants. Near the tomato farm was a family farm, where the family grew string beans, sweet potatoes, okra, onions, peppers, and corn. But in the mid-1930s, the U.S. government placed an embargo, banning tomatoes imported from the Bahamas. His father chose to leave Cat Island and look for work in the nation’s capital, Nassau.
According to the New York Times, young Sidney quit school at age 12 and became a waterboy for a crew of laborers. He also began getting into mischief. He was arrested for stealing corn. His parents worried that he was becoming a juvenile delinquent and sent him to live with his married brother Cyril in Miami.
At 15, Sidney Poitier knew nothing of segregation in the Bahamas. So the laws of the Jim Crow South came as a surprise. “I didn’t understand it,” he wrote in This Life. The Times quotes him as saying about American racism: “It was all over the place like barbed wire, and I kept running into it and lacerating myself.”
Not long after arriving in the city, Sidney returned from the movies to find that his brother’s house was completely dark. “We stepped inside and found the while family moving about n an atmosphere of heavy tension as if they were under siege,” he later recalled. “In hushed tones, my sister-in-law said accusingly, ‘Where have you been?'” When Sidney said he’d been at the movies, his sister-in-law asked, “Did you see those white men?” He hadn’t. “They had on robes and hoods. They said they were looking for you. We’ve got your clothes packed. We’ve got to get you out of here.”
In a year he fled Miami for New York with just $3 to his name. In his book This Life, Poitier recalled that he had to pick up some dry cleaning first. In order to get the clothes immediately, he had to visit the factory instead of the local cleaners. The factory was thirty blocks across town in a white area. He returned from the factory to find that the buses were no longer running. It was just after seven in the evening. He reluctantly began heading back home. He started hitchhiking. A car came by; he stuck out his thumb, hoping for a ride — only to find that it was an unmarked police car with five white cops inside.
“It pulls up right alongside me and the guys in the driver’s seat with stripes on his sleeves says, ‘What are you doing?’ and I say, ‘I’m trying to hitch a ride back to colored town.’ He says, ‘You are, are you?’ He looks at me in silence for a moment and then says, ‘Do you see that alley over there?'”
The cop ordered him to the alley and then backed his car in behind Poitier so that he was face to face with an officer on the passenger side. That officer beckoned Poitier to him.
Then slowly, deliberately, the guy in the passenger seat beckons me to him, and as I lean in toward him, he takes out his gun and places the nozzle of the revolver right between my eyes — on my forehead. He starts moving the nozzle of the gun around ever so slightly in a circle on my forehead, and he’s talking to me at the same time, but not so much to me as to the sergeant behind the wheel. Looking dead at me he says, ‘What should we do with this boy?'”From “This Life”, page 45
After some further questioning the cop told him: “Boy, we’re gonna let you walk home. If you turn around we’ll shoot you. If you look back just once we’ll shoot you. Do you think you can walk home without looking back?”
This story is being updated.