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'He stays, live with it': Betty White refused to remove Black dancer from her show in 1954

Betty White kept Arthur Duncan on the show, risking cancellation but launching his career.

'He stays, live with it': Betty White refused to remove Black dancer from her show in 1954
Cover Image Source: (L) Arthur Duncan/Betty White Show/NBC; (R): American actor Betty White wearing a veiled hat, circa 1955. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 3, 2022. It has since been updated.

Betty White was one of a kind, and no incident highlights that better than her refusing to give in to demands for a Black dancer to be removed from her show in the 50s. Amid the peak of racial segregation, Betty White faced intense pressure to remove tap dancer Arthur Duncan from her show. Having given Duncan his television debut on 'The Betty White Show, Betty White stood her ground against the backlash. "I'm sorry, but he stays...Live with it!" she bluntly told those who brought the matter to her, reported PEOPLE. Betty White died on December 31, 2021, a few weeks shy of her 100th birthday.

HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 7: Actress Betty White speaks on stage at the 2nd Annual TV Land Awards held on March 7, 2004, at The Hollywood Palladium, in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Despite television being a new medium, White was already a seasoned performer from stage and radio. She also featured in a sitcom and co-hosted a Los Angeles daytime talk show. 'The Betty White Show' saw her perform songs and entertain viewers with skits and interviews with guests. She even had a regular children’s segment. Duncan recalled the controversy and how White supported him during those challenging times. "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," said Duncan during an episode of 'Steve Harvey's Little Big Shots: Forever Young' in 2017. "Well, Betty wrote back and said, 'Needless to say, we used Arthur Duncan every opportunity we could.'" Betty White faced pressure from South stations but used Duncan even more until the show was canceled in 1954. It was also the year segregation in public schools was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. 


Duncan later made history as the first Black regular on a variety show, starting with his role on 'The Lawrence Welk Show,' where he remained for two decades. Steve Harvey had Betty White come on to the show to reunite them. Duncan looked at White and joked that his life was now complete. "I'm ready to go now," he said. When Duncan told White, "I hope we have a chance to visit after this is over," she replied, "Oh, I hope so. You never call. You never ask me out." Duncan even tapped a routine before Betty White in a throwback to their time on her show from the 50s. During a 2018 documentary titled 'Betty White: First Lady of Television,' Duncan expressed high praise for White. He said it was White who gave him his break. "I credit Betty White for really getting me started in show business. People in the South, some of them resented me being on the show and wanted me thrown out. And it was never a question at all," he recalled.


White explained the controversy in the documentary, "All through the South there was this whole ruckus, they were going to take the show off the air if we didn't get rid of Arthur because he was Black," said White. "I said, 'I'm sorry, but he stays...Live with it!'" Duncan was featured on the show at least three times. Ignoring the racist calls, she interviewed a Black child during the children’s segment as well, reported The Washington Post. There's no knowing if her putting her foot down on Duncan staying on had any role in the show being repeatedly rescheduled for different time slots before eventually being taken off the air that same year.


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