Madame Sul-Te-Wan

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Madame Sul-Te-Wan
Madame Sul-Te-Wan - Negro Trail Blazers of California.jpg
Nellie Crawford

(1873-03-07)March 7, 1873
DiedFebruary 1, 1959(1959-02-01) (aged 85)
Resting placeValhalla Memorial Park Cemetery
Other names
  • Sul-Te-Wan
  • Madame Sultewan
  • Madame Wan
Years active1915–1958
Robert Reed Conley
(m. 1906, divorced)

Anton Ebentheuer
(m. 1950; div. 1953)
Children3, including Onest Conley

Madame Sul-Te-Wan (born Nellie Crawford; March 7, 1873 – February 1, 1959) was an American stage, film and television actress for over 50 years. The daughter of former slaves, she began her career in entertainment touring the East Coast with various theatrical companies and moved to California to become a member of the fledgling film community. She became known as a character actress, appeared in high-profile films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), and easily navigated the transition to the sound films.

In 1986, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Sul-Te-Wan was the first black actor, male or female, to sign a film contract and be a featured performer.[1]

Early life[edit]

Nellie Crawford[2] was born in Louisville, Kentucky, US to former slaves Cleon De Londa and Silas Crawford. Her father left the family early in her life, and her mother became a laundress for Louisville stage actresses.[3] Young Nellie became enchanted by watching the young actresses rehearse when she delivered laundry for her mother. When she was older she moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, joined a theatrical company called Three Black Cloaks, and began billing herself as Creole Nell. She also formed her own theatrical companies and toured the East Coast. After moving to California, Madame Sul-Te-Wan began her film career in uncredited roles in director D. W. Griffith's controversial 1915 drama Birth of a Nation. Sul-Te-Wan had allegedly written Griffith a letter of introduction after hearing that Griffith was shooting a film in her Kentucky hometown. Griffith had intended that he would play a rich landowner who spits in the face of a woman who slights him. The scene was cut by the censors but Madame Sul-Te-Wan was hired at $3 a day and this became the first contract for a black woman when she was hired at $25 a week.[4] Sul-Te-Wan had managed to get the role by her extravagant dress which caught Griffith's attention.[4]

In the early 1900s, Sul-Te-Wan married Robert Reed Conley. They had three sons,[5] but Conley abandoned his family when the third boy was only three weeks old.[6][7] Two of her sons, Odel and Onest Conley, became actors and appeared in several films. Some of these film featured their mother.

Early film career[edit]

Following her roles for Griffith, Madame Sul-Te-Wan followed up in 1916 with a role in the Anita Loos-penned drama The Children Pay with Lillian Gish and in 1917 with Gish's sister Dorothy in the Edward Morrissey-directed drama Stage Struck.

Madame Sul-Te-Wan (left) in Tarzan of the Apes in 1918

Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, Madame Sul-Te-Wan would establish herself as a publicly recognizable character actress. In 1918 she appeared (uncredited) in Tarzan of the Apes as Jane's maid, Esmerelda.[4] Most often appearing in "Mammy" roles alongside such popular actors of the silent film era as Tom Mix, Leatrice Joy, Matt Moore, Mildred Harris, Harry Carey, Robert Harron, and Mae Marsh. She appeared in the 1927 James W. Horne-directed Buster Keaton comedy College, and in the 1929 Erich von Stroheim-directed drama Queen Kelly, starring Gloria Swanson.

Madame Sul-Te-Wan transitioned into the talkie era with relative ease and continued to appear in high-profile films alongside such prominent film actors as Conrad Nagel, Barbara Stanwyck, Fay Wray, Richard Barthelmess, Jane Wyman, Luise Rainer, Melvyn Douglas, Lucille Ball, Veronica Lake and Claudette Colbert. However, as a black woman in the era of segregation, she was consistently limited to appearing in roles as minor characters who were usually convicts, "native women", or domestic servants, such as her role as a "Native Handmaiden" in the 1933 box-office hit King Kong. Despite the motion picture industry's limitations for African-American performers, Sul-Te-Wan worked consistently throughout the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1937, Sul-Te-Wan was cast in the memorable role of Tituba in the film Maid of Salem, a dramatic retelling of the events surrounding of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. The film starred Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, Gale Sondergaard, Pedro de Cordoba, and Louise Dresser and was rather financially successful. Sul-Te-Wan's performance garnered critical praise.

Later career[edit]

On September 12, 1953, a banquet was held at the Hollywood Playground Auditorium to honor Madame Sul-Te-Wan by motion picture actors and film personalities. Amongst the 200 guests who attended the event were Louise Beavers, Rex Ingram, Mae Marsh, Eugene Pallette and Maude Eburne.[8]

In 1954, Sul-Te-Wan appeared in the Otto Preminger directed and almost entirely African-American cast musical drama Carmen Jones opposite Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Diahann Carroll, and Pearl Bailey as Dandridge's grandmother. The film marked a departure for Sul-Te-Wan, who after appearing onscreen for over four decades, was finally able to act in a role that was atypical of her "Mammy" roles. The pairing of Dandridge and Sul-Te-Wan in Carmen Jones spawned a still widely believed but erroneous rumor – that Sul-Te-Wan was Dandridge's actual grandmother (some allege that she is Dandridge's great-grandmother). However, there is no merit to the claim and the two women are unrelated.[2]

At age 77, Sul-Te-Wan married for the second time, to German immigrant Anton Ebentheuer. The marriage lasted three years.[9] During the 1950s, while in her 80s, she continued to appear onscreen in a number of well-received films, albeit now mostly in smaller bit parts and often uncredited. Her last screen appearance came in the 1958 Anthony Quinn-directed adventure film The Buccaneer, starring Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston.


On February 1, 1959, Madame Sul-Te-Wan died after suffering a stroke at the age of 85 at the Motion Picture Actors' Home in Woodland Hills, California.[10] She was interred at the Pierce Brothers' Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood, Los Angeles County, California.

Legacy and honors[edit]

Sul-Te-Wan was inducted in the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1986.[1]


  • "We never did discover the origin of her name. No one was bold enough to ask." – Lillian Gish.[11]


Year Title Role Notes
1915 The Cause of It All Mary – the Hotel Cook
1915 The Birth of a Nation Black woman (Dr. Cameron's taunter) Uncredited
1916 Hoodoo Ann Black Cindy Uncredited
1916 Intolerance Girl at Marriage Market (Babylonian Story) Uncredited
1916 The Children Pay Uncredited
1917 Stage Struck Uncredited; also known as Stagestruck
1918 Old Wives for New Viola's Maid Uncredited
1918 Tarzan of the Apes Esmeralda (Jane's Maid)[4] Uncredited
1918 Who's Your Father? Black Mother Uncredited
1920 Why Change Your Wife? Sally's Maid Uncredited
1922 Manslaughter Prison Inmate Uncredited
1924 The Lightning Rider Mammy
1925 The Narrow Street Easter
1925 The Golden Bed Boarding House Maid Uncredited
1927 College Cook Uncredited
1927 Uncle Tom's Cabin Slave at Wedding Uncredited
1929 Queen Kelly Kali Sana – Aunt's Cook Uncredited
1929 The Carnation Kid The Maid Uncredited
1930 Sarah and Son Ashmore's Maid Uncredited
1930 The Thoroughbred Sacharine Alternative title: Riding to Win
1931 The Pagan Lady Carla the Servant Uncredited
1931 Heaven on Earth Voodoo Sue Alternative title: Mississippi
1932 Jungle Mystery Native Woman in Stockade Uncredited
1933 Ladies They Talk About Prisoner Mustard Uncredited
Alternative title: Women in Prison
1933 King Kong Native Handmaiden Uncredited
1934 A Modern Hero Mme. Azais' Neighbor Uncredited
1934 Operator 13 Slave at Medicine Show Uncredited
1934 Black Moon Ruva
1934 Imitation of Life Black Cook Uncredited
1935 So Red the Rose Slave Uncredited
1936 San Francisco Earthquake Survivor Uncredited
1937 Maid of Salem Tituba
1937 In Old Chicago Hattie Credited as Madame Sultewan
1938 Island in the Sky Scrubwoman Uncredited
1938 The Toy Wife Eve, a Black Servant Uncredited
Alternative title: Frou Frou
1938 The Affairs of Annabel Benzedrina, a Convict Uncredited
1938 Kentucky Lily
1939 Tell No Tales Jim Alley's mother Uncredited
Alternative title: A Hundred to One
1939 Torchy Blane... Playing with Dynamite Ruby – Black Convict Woman Uncredited
1940 Safari Native Woman
1940 Maryland Naomi Uncredited
1940 Love Thy Neighbor Lady McBeth Uncredited
1941 King of the Zombies Tahama, the Cook and High Priestess
1941 Sullivan's Travels Church harmonium player Uncredited
1942 Mokey Miss Cully, old black woman Uncredited
1943 Revenge of the Zombies Mammy Beulah, the housekeeper Alternative title: The Corpse Vanished
1943 Thank Your Lucky Stars Bit in "Ice Cold Katie" Number Uncredited
1949 Mighty Joe Young Young family servant Uncredited
Alternative title: Mr. Joseph Young of Africa
1949 The Story of Seabiscuit Libby Uncredited
1954 Carmen Jones Hagar – Carmen's Grandmother Uncredited
1955 Medic Grandma Jorson Episode: "All My Mothers, All My Fathers"
1957 Something of Value Midwife Uncredited
Alternative title: Africa Ablaze
1957 Band of Angels Flower Vendor Uncredited
1958 The Buccaneer Good Luck Charm Vendor
1958 Tarzan and the Trappers Witch Woman (final film role)


  1. ^ a b Lowe, Denise. An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films, Haworth Press, p. 504, (2005) ISBN 0-7890-1843-8
  2. ^ a b Madame Sul-Te-Wan at
  3. ^ Bogle, Donald (2006). Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. Random House, Inc. p. 7. ISBN 0-345-45419-7.
  4. ^ a b c d Hunt, Kristin (February 13, 2020). "Madame Sul-Te-Wan's Forgotten Brilliant Career". JSTOR Daily. Retrieved March 5, 2020.
  5. ^ Harris, Gloria G.; Hannah S. Cohen (2012). "Chapter 10. Entertainers – Madame Sul-Te-Wan: Pioneer Black Actress". Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present. Charleston, SC: The History Press. pp. 151–66 [156–59]. ISBN 978-1609496753.
  6. ^ Bogle 2006 pp. 7–8
  7. ^ Regester, Charlene B. (2010). African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900–1960. Indiana University Press. p. 21. ISBN 978-0-253-00431-4.
  8. ^ Jet magazine, October 1, 1953. "200 Attend Oldest Black Actress, Madame Sul-Te-Wan's Banquet"
  9. ^ Bogle 2006 p. 360
  10. ^ "Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Dies At 85". Jet. Johnson Publishing Company. 15 (16): 61. February 19, 1959. ISSN 0021-5996.
  11. ^ Bogle 2006 p. 8


  • The Ghost Walks: A Chronological History of Blacks in Show Business 1865–1910 by Henry T. Sampson, Scarecrow Press (Metuchen, New Jersey, 1988)[ISBN missing]
  • Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia. Volumes 1 and 2. Edited by Darlene Clark Hine. 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York ISBN 0-926019-61-9
  • Black Hollywood, Then and Now, NPR, February 16, 2005

External links[edit]