Fredi WashingtonAug 26th, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Arts & Entertainment
1903-1994 Fredi Washington, an ivory-skinned African American beauty with exceptional acting talent, was the tragic victim of the racial stereotypes, fears, and prejudices of her time. Unable to develop a career as a serious black actress, and unwilling to pretend to be white, she became an important activist and journalist in the field of black performers’ rights.
Black and Tan
Born Fredericka Carolyn Washington in Savannah, Georgia, in 1903, Washington was the eldest of five siblings. Her family became part of the Great Migration that brought millions of southern Blacks north in search of jobs and opportunity, and her early childhood was spent in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. With the death of her mother when she was 11, Washington assumed responsibility for her brothers and sisters until her father remarried, at which point she attended St. Elizabeth Convent school. At the age of 16, she moved to New York City to live with a grandmother and aunt, and having taken an interest in acting, she studied at the Christophe School of Languages and the Egri School of Dramatic Writing.
Washington soon made her stage debut in a cabaret act called the Happy Honeysuckles, and also worked for the W.C. Handy Black Swan Record Company in a clerical position. There, she heard about a new all-black musical show in development called Shuffle Along. After working with a dance tutor to improve her skills, Washington auditioned and was chosen to join the chorus, despite her limited experience. She then danced at New York’s Club Alabam’, where a theater producer noticed her and advised her to audition for a new play, Black Boy. Based on the life of boxer Jack Johnson, the 1926 play starred Paul Robeson, with Washington appearing under the stage name Edith Warren. It closed after several weeks, but not before Washington’s distinctively light skin had attracted attention.
Dramatic opportunities for black actresses were limited at the time, and Washington spent time during the 1920s touring Europe with a dance partner, Al Moiret, with swank engagements in Paris, Berlin, and London. She returned to the United States, and new roles in the emerging film medium late in the decade, began with an appearance in Black and Tan Fantasy in 1929 with Duke Ellington. She followed this with a return to the stage in 1930 in the musical Sweet Chariot, and then joined her sister, Isabell, the following year in Singing the Blues. By this time, Washington was acknowledged as a preeminent African American dramatic actress, leading to more significant roles in films.
She appeared as a prostitute opposite Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones, based on a play by Eugene O’Neill, in 1933. But during production, the Hays Office, which was charged with creating and enforcing a moral code for motion pictures at the time, objected to the torrid scenes between the leads, and what could be mistaken for interracial passion due to Washington’s light skin. She was required to darken her skin with makeup to avoid this impression. In the same year, she married Lawrence Brown, the trombonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Accompanying her husband on tour, she saw first-hand the discriminatory practices they faced as black musicians on the road.
Then in 1934, as if enacting the challenges of her life and career, Washington portrayed a light-skinned black woman who decides to pass as white, in the film Imitation of Life with Claudette Colbert. The film was a popular success, so much so that Washington was accused of being anti-black in real life, an ironic counterpoint to her principled standards. In fact, she refused the offers of motion picture studios to feature and promote her as a white movie star, thereby condemning herself to limited roles and opportunities as a “mulatto.” Her later film roles included Drums of the Jungle in 1935 and One Mile from Heaven in 1937.
A Voice for Actors’ Rights
In response to the injustice she experienced, Washington devoted much of the remainder of her professional life to efforts to improve the rights and welfare of African American performers. In 1937, she co-founded the Negro Actors Guild of America, and served as its first executive secretary. The Guild worked to reduce stereotyping and increase opportunities for black actors. During the same period, she began working for a weekly New York newspaper, The People’s Voice, published by Harlem politician Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., as theater editor and columnist. She was outspoken in her views on racial prejudice in the entertainment industry, and the need for the scions of the film business, in particular, to “…shoulder their full democratic responsibilities.” The theater offered somewhat greater possibilities at this time, and Washington received strong critical notices for her performance in 1939’s Mamba’s Daughters opposite Ethel Waters.
Washington also worked with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, advocating for increased black presence in the arts, and served as administrative secretary for the Joint Actors Equity-Theatre League Committee on Hotel Accommodations, lobbying for improved lodging conditions for African American performers. During the later stages of her career, she worked as a casting consultant for films, including Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, both in 1943, and 1952’s Cry the Beloved Country. In the late 1940s, she also made several stage appearances, including Lysistrata in 1946, A Long Way from Home in 1948, and How Long Til Summer in 1949, and later on radio for the National Urban League and a Jewish immigrant-themed radio comedy show, The Goldbergs. She divorced Brown in 1951, and the following year married a dentist, Hugh Bell, with whom she moved to Connecticut. Bell died in the 1980s.
Following several strokes, Washington died as a result of one in 1994, in Stamford, Connecticut. As a living testimony to the frustrations of an early generation of black performers during her time, she remains an icon of uncompromising standards today. Her ability to transform the constraints imposed on her art into a life of purposeful activism stands as an inspiration to later generations. She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975, and honored with a U.S. Postal Service stamp in the Vintage Black Cinema series of 2008.