Fredi Washington

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Fredi Washington
Imitation of Life (1934)--Fredi Washington.JPG
Fredericka Carolyn Washington

(1903-12-23)December 23, 1903
DiedJune 28, 1994(1994-06-28) (aged 90)
OccupationActress, activist
Years active1922–50
Spouse(s)Lawrence Brown (1933–51; divorced)
Hugh Bell (1952–70, his death)

Fredericka Carolyn "Fredi" Washington (December 23, 1903 – June 28, 1994) was an American stage and film actress, civil rights activist, performer, and writer. Washington was of African American and European descent. She was one of the first people of color to gain recognition for film and stage work in the 1920s and 1930s.[1]

Washington was active in the Harlem Renaissance (1920s–1930s), her best known role being "Peola" in the 1934 version of the film Imitation of Life (1934), in which she plays a young light-skinned woman who decides to pass as white.[1] Her last film role was in One Mile from Heaven (1937), after which she left Hollywood and returned to New York to work in theatre and civil rights activism.

Early life[edit]

Fredi Washington was born in 1903 in Savannah, Georgia, to Robert T. Washington, a postal worker, and Harriet Walker Ward, a former dancer. Both were of African American and European ancestry. Fredi was the second of their five children. Her mother, Hattie, died when Fredi was 11 years old.[2] As the oldest girl in her family, she 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 to the St. Elizabeth's Convent School for colored girls in Cornwells Heights, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[3] 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, where she graduated from Julia Richman High School in New York City.[4]


Early work[edit]

Fredi Washington's performing career began in 1921 when she got a chance to work in New York City, where she was living with her grandmother and aunt. She was a chorus girl in the hit Broadway musical Shuffle Along. She was hired by dancer Josephine Baker as a member of the "Happy Honeysuckles," a cabaret group.[5] Baker also became a friend and mentor to her.[6] Washington's friendship with Baker, as well as her talent as a performer, led to her being discovered by producer Lee Shubert. In 1926, Washington was recommended for a co-starring role on the Broadway stage with Paul Robeson in Black Boy.[7] She was very attractive, as well as a talented entertainer, and she easily moved up to become a popular featured dancer. She toured internationally with her dancing partner Al Moiret; they were especially popular in London.[4]

Film career[edit]

Fredi Washington turned to acting in the late 1920s. Her first movie role was in Black and Tan (1929), in which she played a Cotton Club dancer who was dying. She also had a small part in The Emperor Jones (1933), based on a play by Eugene O'Neill and starring Paul Robeson. Washington played Cab Calloway's love interest in the musical short Cab Calloway's Hi-De-Ho (1934).[8]

Her best-known role was in the 1934 movie Imitation of Life; Washington played a young, light skinned black[1] woman who chose to pass as white to seek more opportunities in a society restricted by legal racial segregation in some states and social discrimination in others. As Washington had visible European ancestry, the role was considered perfect for her, but it led to her being typecast by filmmakers.[9] Moviegoers sometimes assumed from Washington's appearance–her blue-gray eyes, pale complexion, and light brown hair–that she might have passed in real life. In 1934 she said the role did not reflect her off-screen life, but "If I made Peola seem real enough to merit such statements, I consider such statements compliments and makes me feel I've done my job fairly well."[10] She told reporters in 1949 she identified as black "Because I'm honest, firstly, and secondly, you don't have to be white to be good. I've spent most of my life trying to prove to those who think otherwise ... I am a Negro and I am proud of it."[10]

Imitation of Life[edit]

Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington in Imitation of Life (1934)

Imitation of Life was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, but it did not win. Years later, in 2007, Time magazine ranked it as among "The 25 Most Important Films on Race".[11]

Despite receiving critical acclaim, she was unable to find much work in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s. On the one hand, black actresses were expected to have dark skin, and were usually typecast as maids.[12] On the other hand, directors were concerned about casting a light-skinned black actress in a romantic role with a white leading man; the film production code prohibited suggestions of miscegenation, so Hollywood directors did not offer her any romantic roles.[13] As one modern critic explained, Fredi Washington was "too beautiful and not dark enough to play maids, but rather too light to act in all-black movies."[14] She also tried to find work in radio, where most opportunities for black performers were as musicians in bands, or as comedic sidekicks, such as Eddie "Rochester" Anderson, in his role as Jack Benny's valet.[15]

Washington had an important dramatic role in a 1943 radio tribute to black women, Heroines in Bronze, produced by the National Urban League.[16] But there were few regular dramatic programs in that era with black protagonists. Washington wrote an opinion piece for the black press in which she discussed how limited the opportunities in broadcasting were for black actors, actresses, and vocalists, saying that "radio seems to keep its doors sealed" against "colored artists."[17]

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."[18]

Later career[edit]

In an effort to help other black actors and actresses to find more opportunities, Washington co-founded the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG) with Noble Sissle, W. C. Handy, Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters, in 1937.[8] The organization's mission included speaking out against stereotyping and advocating for a wider range of roles.[2] Washington served as the organization's first executive secretary.[19][8]

Washington played opposite Bill Robinson in Fox's One Mile from Heaven (1937), in which she played a biracial woman claiming to be the mother of a "white" baby. Claire Trevor plays a reporter who discovers the story and helps both Washington and the white biological mother who had given up the baby, played by Sally Blane.[20][21] According to the Museum of Modern Art in 2013: "The last of the six Claire Trevor 'snappy' vehicles [Allan] Dwan made for Fox in the 1930s tests the limits of free expression on race in Hollywood while sometimes straining credulity."[22]

Washington appeared in the 1939 Broadway production of Mamba's Daughters, along with Ethel Waters and Georgette Harvey. She later became a casting consultant for the stage productions of Carmen Jones (1943) and George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.[8][23]

Washington was also a theater 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 who was married to her sister Isabel Washington Powell.[1] It was published from 1942 to 1948.[24] She was outspoken about racism faced by African Americans and 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 theater led her to become a civil rights activist.

Personal life[edit]

Washington dated Duke Ellington for a while but, realizing he was not going to marry her, she started another relationship. In 1933, she married Lawrence Brown, the trombonist in Ellington's jazz orchestra.[25] a relationship that ended in divorce.[1] In 1952, Washington married a Stamford dentist, Hugh Anthony Bell, and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut.[26] Bell died in 1970.[27]

Her sister, Isabel Washington Powell (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. According to her sister, Washington never had children. [1]

Views on biracialism and "passing"[edit]

Throughout her life, Washington was often asked if she ever wanted to "pass" for white.

The Pittsburgh Courier (April 14, 1934): "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."[28]

The Chicago Defender (January 19, 1935): "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."[29]

The Chicago Defender (June 16, 1945):

"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."[18]


Washington, aged 90, died from pneumonia after a series of strokes at St. Joseph Medical Center in Stamford, Connecticut on June 28, 1994.[30] She was survived by her sisters Isabel Washington, Rosebud Smith and Gertrude Penna, and a brother, Floyd Washington.[1]

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • In 1975, Washington was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.[4]
  • In 1979, Washington received the CIRCA Award for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.[8]
  • In 1981, Washington received an award from the Audience Development Company (AUDELCO), a New York-based nonprofit group devoted to preserving and promoting African-American theater.[23]



  1. ^ a b c d e f g Sheila Rule, "Fredi Washington, 90, Actress; Broke Ground for Black Artists", New York Times, accessed December 14, 2008.
  2. ^ a b Nzinga Cotton. "Fredi Washington: Active Promoter of Rights for Black Entertainers," New Nation (London UK), June 16, 2008, p. 21.
  3. ^ Frank William Johnson. "Acclaimed Actress Fredi Washington, 90, Has Passed Away." Philadelphia Tribune, August 12, 1994, p. 4D.
  4. ^ a b c Stephen Bourne. "Obituary: Fredi Washington", The Independent (London, UK), July 4, 1994.
  5. ^ Sheila Rule. "Fredi Washington, 90, Actress", New York Times, June 30, 1994.
  6. ^ Veronica Chambers. "Lives Well Lived: Fredi Washington, The Tragic Mulatto." New York Times, January 1, 1995, p. A27.
  7. ^ Frank William Johnson. "Acclaimed Actress Fredi Washington Has Passed Away." Philadelphia Tribune, August 12, 1994, p. 4D.
  8. ^ a b c d e Bracks, Lean'tin L.; Smith, Jessie Carney (2014). Black Women of the Harlem Renaissance Era. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 239. ISBN 978-0-8108-8543-1.
  9. ^ Frank William Johnson. "Acclaimed Actress Fredi Washington, 90, Has Passed Away." Philadelphia Tribune, August 12, 1994, p. 4D.
  10. ^ a b Hobbs, Allyson (2014). A Chosen Exile: A History of Racial Passing in American Life. Harvard University Press. pp. 170–2.
  11. ^ "The 25 Most Important Films on Race: 'Imitation of Life' ", Time, February 2007; accessed December 3, 2008.
  12. ^ "Colored Actresses Reap Fortunes In Maid Roles". Jet: 60–61. October 16, 1952.
  13. ^ Courtney, "Picturizing Race: Hollywood's Censorship of Miscegenation and Production of Racial Visibility through Imitation of Life" Archived May 30, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, Genders, Vol. 27, 1998; accessed May 21, 2013
  14. ^ Ronald Bergen. "Between Black and White." The Guardian (Manchester UK), July 9, 1994.
  15. ^ "A Tribute to Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson Jr.," Baltimore Afro-American, March 12, 1977, p. A12.
  16. ^ Barbara Dianne Savage, Broadcasting Freedom. University of North Carolina Press, 1999, p. 172.
  17. ^ Fredi Washington. "Future for Negro Performers This Season Looks Very Dark," Atlanta Daily World, September 23, 1940, p. 2.
  18. ^ a b EARL CONRAD, "Pass Or Not To Pass?" (June 16, 1945), The Chicago Defender.
  19. ^ "Fredi Washington, Edna Thomas Honored By Guild," Norfolk (VA) New Journal and Guide, July 5, 1941, p. 15.
  20. ^ Overview: One Mile from Heaven, New York Times, accessed May 31, 2013.
  21. ^ Poster for One Mile from Heaven Archived March 11, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, A Cinema Apart website
  22. ^ One Mile from Heaven, screening June 13, 2013, part of exhibit: Allan Dwan and the Rise and Decline of the Hollywood Studios, MOMA, accessed May 31, 2013.
  23. ^ a b Ware, Susan (2004). Notable American Women: A Biographical Dictionary Completing the Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press. pp. 666–667. ISBN 978-0-674-01488-6.
  24. ^ People's Voice, Historical Society of Philadelphia, 2005, accessed December 3, 2008.
  25. ^ Petty, Miriam J. (2016). Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood. Univ of California Press. p. 133. ISBN 978-0-520-96414-3.
  26. ^ "New York Beat". Jet: 63. November 6, 1952.
  27. ^ Finlay, Nancy (February 22, 2017). "Remembering Fredi Washington: Actress, Activist, and Journalist". Connecticut History.
  28. ^ Fay M. Jackson (April 14, 1934) The Pittsburgh Courier
  29. ^ The Chicago Defender (January 19, 1935)
  30. ^ "Veteran Actress Fredi Washington Dies At 90". Jet: 53. July 18, 1994.

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