Fredi Washington: The Actress Who Refused to “Pass”

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                                            FrediWashington

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Fredi as Peola in Imitation of Life (1939)

Fredi w/ actress Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life (1934)
Fredi w/ actress Louise Beavers in Imitation of Life (1934)

          

Born: Frederika Carolyn “Fredi” Washington on December 23, 1903 in Savannah, Georgia

Parents: Robert T. Washington, a postal worker and Harriet Walker Ward, a former dancer

Siblings: Fredi was the second of five children from her fathers’s first family with her mother. Her mother died when she was 11 years old; she helped raise her younger siblings Isabel, Rosebud, and Robert with the help of her grandmother who was called “Big Mamma.” Her father married a second time, but this wife died while pregnant. He married a third time and had four children with this wife. Fredi had a total of eight siblings from her father’s two families.

Fredi and her siblings; from left to right: Fredi, Alonso, Isabel, and Robert
Fredi and her siblings; from left to right: Fredi, Alonso, Isabel, and Robert
Fredi and sister Isabel in their elderly years
Fredi and sister Isabel in their elderly years
Fredi and Sister Isabel in Younger Years
Fredi and Sister Isabel in Younger Years

Spouse(s): Lawrence Brown (married 1933; divorced 1951) and Anthony Bell, DDS, a dentist (married 1952 until his death in 1970)

Fredi's first husband, Lawrence
Fredi’s first husband, Lawrence a trombonist
Fredi and her first husband,
Fredi and her second husband, Anthony
From Hue Magazine April 21, 1954
                                                                   From Hue Magazine April 21, 1954

Children: 0

Education: St. Elizabeth’s Convent School For Colored Girls in Conwells Heights, near Philadelphia, PA; graduated from Julia Richmond High School, New York City, NY

Occupation: Actress, Journalist, and Civil Rights Activist

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Accomplishments, Achievements, and Contributions: 

Fredi’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]

Fredi Washington turned to acting in the late 1920s. Her first movie role was in Black and Tan (1929), in which she played a dancer who was dying. She also had a small part inThe Emperor Jones (1933), based on a play by Eugene O’Neill and starring Paul Robeson.

Her best-known role was in the 1934 movie Imitation of Life; Washington played a young mulatto[1] 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.[8] 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.”[9] Washington turned down many opportunities to pass as white. 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.”[9]

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”.[10] She also appeared in the 1939 film Mamba’s Daughters, along with popular singer Ethel Waters. In an effort to help other black actors and actresses to find more opportunities, she founded the Negro Actors Guild in 1937; the organization’s mission included speaking out against stereotyping and advocating for a wider range of roles. [11]Washington served as the organization’s first executive secretary. [12]

Despite receiving critical acclaim, she was unable to find much work in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s. One the one hand, black actresses were expected to have dark skin, and were usually typecast as maids. On the other hand, directors were concerned about casting a light-skinned black actress in a romantic role with a white leading man; the filmproduction 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]

She played opposite Bill Robinson in Fox’s One Mile from Heaven (1937), in which she played a mulatto 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.[19][20] According to the Museum of Modern Art in 2013: “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.”[21]

Washington was also 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.[1] It was published 1942-1948.[22] She was 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.[23]

In 1953, she was a film casting consultant for Carmen Jones, which starred Dorothy Dandridge, another pioneering African-American actress. She also consulted on casting forGeorge Gershwin‘s Porgy and Bess, an opera performed in revival on Broadway in 1952, and filmed in 1959.[10]

Awards/Honors: Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1975

Quotes About or By Fredi: From Wikipedia 

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

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]

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.”[24]

“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.”[25]

“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]

Death: June 28, 1994 in Stamford, Connecticut after a series of strokes

I Salute this AMAZING HER-Story making sista!

Sources:

Wikipedia

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4 thoughts on “Fredi Washington: The Actress Who Refused to “Pass”

  1. Oh yeah she could’ve easily passed with no problem. She could’ve just said she was Italian and no one would’ve been the wiser. I noticed back in the twenties,thirties and forties there were a lot of actresses that could’ve passed for white. It looks like Hollywood has repeated itself. Even today they are doing the same thing. The brown “paper bag test” is still alive and well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She had to wear dark make up when she played in Black movies so that she would not appear to light. She also said that she wished she was darker, like Nina Mae McKinney’s complexion. Remember, I did a post on Nina a while back: https://originalwoman13.wordpress.com/2015/03/29/nina-mae-mckinney-june-12-1912-or-1913-may-3-1967-americas-first-black-movie-starlette-and-love-goddess/

      Back to Fredi, Hollyweird wanted her to pass but she refused. It is also said that they didn’t know what to do with her anyway cause she was so light. However, she got sick of their racism and bacame a journalist and civil rights activist.

      When I was doing research for this post, I came across a post on another blog in which the author said that Hollywood set the light skinned black woman as the standard of black beauty. Not surprising.

      P.S. You missed my most recent Great Goddess Femcees post. Looking forward to your comment on that one: https://originalwoman13.wordpress.com/2015/10/23/great-goddess-femcees/

      Liked by 1 person

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