Washington, Fredi 1903-1994

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Fredi Washington 1903-1994

Actress, dancer, civil rights activist

Starred Opposite Paul Robeson

Typecast by Controversial Role

Devoted Herself to Black Rights


Heralded for her performances both onstage and in film, Fredi Washingtons career was nonetheless limited by a light complexion that typecast her as a mulatto and became an ongoing issue for the Hollywood censors of her era. Her frustration with stereotyping eventually led her away from film and fueled her development as an active promoter of rights for blacks.

Fredericka Fredi Carolyn Washington was the eldest sibling of her family. Her mother died when she was 11, at which time the young Washington more or less took charge of the household and the tending of her two brothers and two sisters. When her father married again, she and her sister Isabell were placed at Saint Elizabeths Convent in Cornwell Heights, Pennsylvania.

Washington made a dramatic shift away from the highly protective world of the convent when she moved to New York City to live with her grandmother and aunt. At that time she became interested in acting and received some training at the Egri School of Dramatic Writing and the Christophe School of Languages. By age 16 she was performing as part of the Happy Honeysuckles, a cabaret act employed by stage sensation Josephine Baker.

After a series of menial jobs, Washington auditioned to be one of the dancers in an all-black musical, Shuffle Along, about which she had heard while working as a bookkeeper at the W. C. Handy Black Swan Record Company. Honing her dance skills with instruction by a black choreographer, Elida Webb, Washington was selected for the chorus of the 1921 production. She was paid $35 a week for her role, which at the time was an excellent wage for someone with little experience as a dancer.

Starred Opposite Paul Robeson

Washingtons next break came while she was working as a dancer at the Club Alabam in New York. She was spotted by Lee Shubert, a noted theatrical manager and producer. Shubert was so impressed that he urged her to audition for a role in Black Boy, a play based on the life of controversial black boxer Jack Johnson that was to star Paul Robeson. Washingtons name was changed to Edith Warren just before the play opened in 1926. According to Martin Duberman in Paul Robeson, Washington later claimed that the name change was the producers idea.

At a Glance

Born Fredericka Carolyn Washington, December 23, 1903, in Savannah, GA; died June 28, 1994, of pneumonia after a stroke, in Stamford, CT; married Lawrence Brown (a trombonist; divorced); married Anthony H. Bell (a dentist; died, early 1980s). Education: Studied at Egri School of Dramatic Writing and Christophe School of Languages.

Member of Happy Honeysuckles cabaret act, 1919; worked as stockroom clerk for a dress company and at other odd jobs, New York City; bookkeeper at W. C. Handy Black Swan Record Company, New York City; chorus dancer in stage musical Shuffle Along, 1921; dancer at Club Alabam, New York City, 1920s; as Edith Warren, appeared in play Black Boy, 1926; actress and dancer in numerous plays and films, 1920s and 1930s, including Imitation of life, 1934; worked for equal rights for blacks in the theater and film industries; founded Negro Actors Guild of America, 1937; drama editor and columnist for The Peoples Voice; worked with Joint Actors Equity Theatre League Committee on Hotel Accommodations for blacks; served as registrar for Henry da Silver School of Acting; appeared in numerous stage productions, 1940s; casting consultant for films Carmen Jones (1943), Porgy and Bess (1943), and Cry the Beloved Country (1952); performed in radio and television dramas, including specials for the National Urban League.

After critics gave the play mixed reviews, Black Boy was not well received by the public, and it closed in a few weeks. Considerable media attention focused on how light Washingtons skin was for a black woman, and many of those who attended the play were curiosity seekers who wanted to see Washingtons complexion. Although her color resulted in Washington getting a number of roles as tragic women who were trapped between white and black, it ultimately limited her artistic advancement.

In an obituary of Washington in the New York Times, Sheila Rule noted that the actresss light skin was occasionally an asset. According to Rule, Jean-Claude Baker, a restaurateur and author who was a friend of Washingtons, said that she did pass for white when she was traveling in the South with Duke Ellington and his band (her husband, Lawrence Brown, was a trombonist with the orchestra). They could not go into ice cream parlors, so she would go in and buy the ice cream, then go outside and give it to Ellington and the band. Whites screamed at her, Nigger lover!

Opportunities for black actresses were scarce in the early 1920s, so Washington returned to dancing. She toured Europe for a while with dance partner Al Moiret, then returned to the United States, and appeared in a number of black films. Her dance skills were showcased in the musical Black and Tan Fantasy in 1929. Her character in the film was anill dancer who died after performing to music written by her lover.

In 1930 Washington appeared in Sweet Chariot, a musical play based on Marcus Garveys Universal Negro Improvement Association, an organization that promoted unity among blacks across the globe and pride in African heritage. The following year she performed with her sister Isabell in Singing the Blues, a melodrama about Harlem night life.

By the early 1930s Washington had confirmed her status as one the great black dramatic actresses in the United States. She had major roles in movies, including one in The Emperor Jones in 1933, an adaptation of a play written by Eugene ONeill. The film portrayed the ascent of a Harlem train porter to king of the Haitian jungle. Washington played the role of a prostitute in the film, and her skin caused a stir with the Hays Office, headed by Will H. Hays, which at the time dictated the moral code for films. According to Duberman, Viewing the passionate footage between Robeson and Fredi Washington, Hays insisted it be reshot, lest the light-skinned Miss Washington come across as a white woman. Washington was obligated to don makeup every day during the films shooting to darken her complexion.

Typecast by Controversial Role

Perhaps the defining point of Washingtons film career came in 1934s Imitation of Life, by far the most controversial film of her life, which also starred Claudette Colbert and Louise Beavers. Washington played the role of Peola, a light-skinned black woman whose attempts to pass as white become a source of heartache for her servant mother (Beavers). Peola marries a white, blond engineer and leaves the country to live with her new husband in Bolivia. When her mother becomesill and then dies, Peola blames her own actions for hastening her death. As described in Time magazine, Washington gave her greatest performance capturing the inner torment of a young woman who abandons her mother in order to pass as white. Reviews of the film were mixed, but it was a great commercial success. Washingtons performance was so believable that she was often accused of denying her heritage in real life. More than any other of her performances, Imitation of Life solidified Washingtons confusing hybrid film persona. Hollywood continued to cast her in mulatto roles, yielding few opportunities for expanding her range.

Theater offered more opportunities for Washington and her fellow blacks in the 1930s. Loften Mitchell pointed out in Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre that the late 1930s was an era of optimism in Negro theatrical circles. Washington was praised for her performance in Mambas Daughters in 1939, in which she appeared opposite the great singing actress Ethel Waters.

Devoted Herself to Black Rights

Resenting the stereotyping that had stalled her career, Washington became active in the political arena in the late 1930s. She founded the Negro Actors Guild of America in 1937 and became its first executive secretary. The goal of the organization was to eliminate stereotyping of roles and pave the way for more acting opportunities for blacks. Washingtons activism resulted in a reduction in her own acting performances, as did her new career as a journalist. She became a theater editor and columnist for The Peoples Voice, a New York City-based weekly newspaper published by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the black clergyman and Harlem politician. Powell was the husband of Washingtons sister at the time.

From this time on Washington worked diligently to better conditions for blacks. One of her causes was the Joint Actors Equity Theatre League Committee on Hotel Accommodations, a venture seeking better lodgings for black actors. She also worked with other black performers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) to secure more black representation in the arts.

In her newspaper column, Washington aired her views on injustices to blacks in the arts. In her review of Paul Robeson as Othello in a 1943 production, as quoted by Paul Robeson author Duberman, she hoped that someday the dynasties of the far-reaching picture world will become adult enough to shoulder their full democratic responsibilities. Her wish that a black actor be awarded the film role of Othello would not be fulfilled: the first filmed version of Shakespeares play, in 1951, featured white actor Orson Welles in dark makeup as the black moor Othello.

Washington worked as a registrar for the Henry da Silver School of Acting and held a variety of positions in the movie industry in the 1940s and 1950s. She was a casting consultant for the films Carmen Jones (1943), Porgy and Bess (1943), and Cry the Beloved Country (1952). She also appeared in the stage vehicles Lysistrata (1946), A Long Way From Home (1948), and How Long Til Summer (1949). Washington expanded her acting range by appearing on radio and television in specials for the National Urban League and such shows as The Goldbergs. In her later years she devoted herself mostly to civil rights pursuits.

Doomed to settle for a truncated career as an actress due to limitations on blacks imposed by society and the acting industry, Fredi Washington never got the chance to fully develop her craft. However, she made a memorable impact in an assortment of films and plays, and her efforts on the behalf of blacks paved the way for African American performers to capitalize on opportunities that had been denied her.



The Black American Reference Book, edited by Mabel M. Smythe, Prentice-Hall, 1976.

Contributions of Black Women to America, Volume 1, edited by Marianna W. Davis, Kenday Press, 1982.

Cripps, Thomas, Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942, Oxford University Press, 1977.

Duberman, Martin Bauml, Paul Robeson, Knopf, 1988.

Leab, Daniel J., From Sambo to Superspade: The Black Experience in Motion Pictures, Houghton Mifflin, 1976.

Mitchell, Loften, Black Drama: The Story of the American Negro in the Theatre, Hawthorne Books, 1967.


Essence, September 1978, pp. 98-111.

Facts on File, July 14, 1994, p. 504.

Jet, July 18, 1994, p. 53.

New York Times, June 30, 1994, p. Bll

Time, July 11, 1994, p. 15.

Ed Decker

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Washington, Fredi 1903-1994