December 23, 1903|
|Died||June 28, 1994
Fredericka Carolyn "Fredi" Washington (December 23, 1903 – June 28, 1994) was an accomplished African-American dramatic film actress, one of the first to gain recognition for her work in film and on stage. She was active during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s). She is best known for her role as Peola in the 1934 version of the film Imitation of Life, in which she plays a young mulatto woman. Her last film role was in One Mile from Heaven (1937), after which she left Hollywood because of limited opportunities and returned to New York to work in theatre and civil rights.
Early life and education
Fredi Washington was born in Savannah, Georgia to Hattie and Robert T. Washington, an African-American couple whose families had been free since before the American Civil War. They both had partially European ancestry. Fredi was the second of their five children. Her mother, Hattie, died when Fredi was a girl.
As the oldest girl in her family, Fredi helped raise her younger siblings, Isabel, Rosebud and Robert, with the help of their grandmother, whom the family called "Big Mama." After their mother's death, Fredi was sent away to a school for colored girls in Philadelphia. At this time, motherless girls were thought of as orphans, despite other family. Her sister, Isabel, soon followed her.
At some point her father, Robert T. Washington, remarried. His second wife died while pregnant. He later married a third time and had four children with his last wife. Fredi had a total of eight siblings from her father's two families.
While Fredi was still in school in Philadelphia, her family moved North to Harlem, New York in the Great Migration for work and opportunity in the industrial North. Fredi followed her family to Harlem. She quit school soon after to help provide financially for the family.
Washington started her career as a dancer in the Broadway play, Shuffle Along. She was in a few of the first black Broadway shows. Because of her beauty and talent, she easily moved up as a popular featured dancer. She toured internationally with a dance team. During this period she befriended many African-American performers, including the dancer Josephine Baker.
She became known for her work as an actress. She had an important role in a 1943 radio tribute to black women, "Heroines in Bronze,"  but she was best known for her work in film. Washington's first movie role was in Black and Tan (1929) where she played a dying dancer. She had a small part in The Emperor Jones (1933) starring Paul Robeson, based on the play by Eugene O'Neill.
In Imitation of Life, Washington played a young mulatto who chose to pass as white to seek more opportunities in a society restricted by legal racial discrimination in some states and social discrimination in others. The film was nominated for an Academy Award. In 2007, Time magazine ranked it as among "The 25 Most Important Films on Race".
Washington turned down a number of chances to pass for white as an actress, which might have led to more acting roles. Reflecting her mixed African-European ancestry, she had a fair complexion and green eyes.
In 1945 she said,
"You see I'm a mighty proud gal and I can't for the life of me, find any valid reason why anyone should lie about their origin or anything else for that matter. Frankly, I do not ascribe to the stupid theory of white supremacy and to try to hide the fact that I am a Negro for economic or any other reasons, if I do I would be agreeing to be a Negro makes me inferior and that I have swallowed whole hog all of the propaganda dished out by our fascist-minded white citizens."
Because of her beauty and appearance, directors often chose darker-skinned actresses for the stereotypical "maid" roles offered to black actresses in those years. As the film production code prohibited suggestions of miscegenation, Hollywood directors did not offer her romantic roles with leading white actors. When Washington played roles in race films intended for black audiences, she was sometimes asked to wear makeup to darken her skin.
Washington had a role (4th billing) in Fox's One Mile from Heaven (1937), in which she also played a mulatto woman claiming to be the mother of a "white" baby, a story uncovered by Claire Trevor as a reporter. She helps both Washington and the biological mother, played by Sally Blane, a white woman who gave up her baby. and was paired with Bill Robinson. The Museum of Modern Art has described it in 2013 as "The last of the six Claire Trevor “snappy” vehicles Dwan made for Fox in the 1930s tests the limits of free expression on race in Hollywood while sometimes straining credulity."
Realizing that she had few opportunities in Hollywood at the time, Washington quit movies and returned to New York to work in theatre. She was often dismayed that she didn't get to develop more as an actress. She was tired of being asked to pass or to play the stereotype of "tragic mulatto" roles. She wanted to perform in more complicated, versatile roles. Frustrated, she quit acting and focused her efforts on civil rights.
Washington also became a theatre writer. She was the Entertainment Editor for People's Voice, a newspaper for African Americans founded by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a Baptist minister and politician in New York City. For a time he was married to her sister Isabel Washington. It was published 1942-1948.
Washington was fearlessly outspoken about racism faced by African Americans. She worked closely with Walter White, then president of the NAACP, to address pressing issues facing black people in America.
Her experiences in the film industry and theatre led her to become a civil rights activist. Together with Noble Sissle, W.C. Handy and Dick Campbell, in 1937 Washington was a founding member with Alan Corelli of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG) in New York. She served as executive secretary, and worked for better opportunities for African-American actors. She also was active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked to secure better hotel accommodations for black actors, who were often discriminated against while touring. She promoted less stereotyping and discrimination in roles for black actors.
In 1953, Washington was a film casting consultant for Carmen Jones, which starred Dorothy Dandridge, another pioneering African-American actress. She also consulted on casting for George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, an opera performed in revival on Broadway in 1952 and filmed in 1959.
Marriage and family
Washington dated Duke Ellington for some time but, when she saw he was not going to marry her, she started another relationship. She married Lawrence Brown, the trombonist in Duke Ellington's jazz orchestra, a relationship which ended in divorce.
Washington later married Anthony H. Bell, a dentist. Bell died in the 1980s. Washington died of a stroke, the last of several, on June 28, 1994 in Stamford, Connecticut at the age of 90. According to her sister, Isabel, Fredi never had children.
One of Washington's sisters, Isabel Washington (May 23, 1909 - May 1, 2008), was a singer and nightclub performer. She married Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first African American elected to Congress from New York state. They later divorced.
Throughout her life, Washington was often asked if she ever wanted to "pass" for white. Washington, a proud black woman, answered conclusively, "No." She said this repeatedly, "I don't want to pass because I can't stand insincerities and shams. I am just as much Negro as any of the others identified with the race."
"I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race. In 'Imitation of Life', I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt." 
"I am an American citizen and by God, we all have inalienable rights and wherever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight...and I fight. How many people do you think there are in this country who do not have mixed blood, there's very few if any, what makes us who we are, are our culture and experience. No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black. There are many whites who are mixed blood, but still go by white, why such a big deal if I go as Negro, because people can't believe that I am proud to be a Negro and not white. To prove I don't buy white superiority I chose to be a Negro."
- Sheila Rule, "Fredi Washington, 90, Actress; Broke Ground for Black Artists", New York Times, accessed 14 Dec 2008
- Barbara Dianne Savage, Broadcasting Freedom. University of North Carolina Press, 1999, p. 172.
- "The 25 Most Important Films on Race: 'Imitation of Life' ", Time, Feb 2007, accessed 3 Dec 2008
- Alicia I. Rodriquez-Estrada, "Fredi Washington" (1903-1994), Online Encyclopedia, Black Past 2007-2008, accessed 3 Dec 2008
- EARL CONRAD, "Pass Or Not To Pass?" (16 Jun 1945) The Chicago Defender
- Courtney, "Picturizing Race: Hollywood's Censorship of Miscegenation and Production of Racial Visibility through Imitation of Life", Genders, Vol. 27, 1998, accessed 21 May 2013
- Overview: One Mile from Heaven, New York Times, accessed 31 May 2013
- Poster for One Mile from Heaven, A Cinema Apart website
- One Mile from Heaven, screening 13 June 2013, part of exhibit: Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios, MOMA, accessed 31 May 2013
- People's Voice, Historical Society of Philadelphia, 2005, accessed 3 Dec 2008
- Fay M. Jackson (14 April 1934) The Pittsburgh Courier
- The Chicago Defender (19 January 1935)
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Fredi Washington.|
- Fredi Washington at the Internet Movie Database
- The People's Voice Research and Editorial Files (1865-1963) are available for research use at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.