Dorothy Van Engle, an African-American leading lady known for her roles in “Murder in Harlem” and other so-called race films of the 1930s, died May 10 in Florida of a protein deficiency. She was 87.
She co-starred in the 1935 mystery-drama “Murder in Harlem” and the 1938 musical-drama “Swing!” She also played roles in “Harlem After Midnight” and other low-budget movies made by pioneer black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.
Known for her beauty and her portrayal of strong women, she was one of Micheaux’s top two or three female leads of the sound era.
Born Donessa Dorothy Van Engle in Harlem, N.Y., Van Engle grew up in the same 145th Street apartment building as singer Lena Horne. Her stepfather, Arvelle “Snoopie” Harris, played saxophone with Cab Calloway’s band, and she met Micheaux through the family’s show business connections.
Van Engle also worked as a model in the 1930s.
A seamstress who designed her own clothes, Van Engle made the clothes she wore in her films.
“Swing!” was Van Engle’s last film. She made it after marrying Herbert Hollon, a building superintendent with whom she had two sons.
She is survived by two sons; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.