28 Days of Black Excellence

An ongoing series for the entire 28 days of Black History Month that showcases the inventions, the people, and culture that makes people of the African diaspora so excellent.

One of the first actresses to break ground in film, TV, and stage, looked white. If that isn’t irony enough, she wished she looked black, so that she could take on more roles that suited who she was, ethnically.

Born Fredricka Carolyn Washington, in 1903 in Savannah, Georgia, both her parents were biracial. From an early age, she began performing. By 16, she was doing cabaret.

During a time when “passing” was one of the few ways any black person could get work doing anything outside of the black community, Fredi had to toe a fine line. Some people became so accustomed to living as white, they’d forgo marriages and funerals of their black families just to escape the stigma of someone, somehow, learning of their true heritages.

Subsequently, her brief Hollywood career in the 1930s is barely remembered, and somewhat overshadowed by the stands made by the impressive, and highly surprising (considering their skin-colors) careers of Paul Robeson and Lena Horne in the following decade. However, had it not been for Fredi and other trailblazers, those two actors may never have even been given those opportunities.

Ms. Washington was educated at St Elizabeth’s Convent in Philadelphia and Julia Richman High School in New York. In 1922 she made her first stage appearance as a dancer in the touring company of the Broadway musical hit “Shuffle Along”.

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Washington’s most famous screen role was in John M. Stahl’s tear-jerker Imitation of Life (1934), starring Claudette Colbert. In the film’s moving sub-plot, Colbert’s black friend and confidante is troubled by her light-skinned daughter’s desire to pass for white. Washington gave an impressive performance as the daughter who disowns her mother and true racial identity. However, by the time Imitation of Life was remade by Douglas Sirk in 1959, it had become a tradition in Hollywood to cast white actresses as light- skinned black women. For instance, in 1951 Lena Horne lost the role of Julie in MGM’s Show Boat to Ava Gardner. So in 1934 the casting of Washington in Imitation of Life was unique, and not repeated for 50 years, until Lonette McKee portrayed a nightclub singer who passes for white in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984).

Jean-Claude Baker, a restaurateur and author and a friend of Ms. Washington’s, said, “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!’”

Fredi Washington, black women, black actresses, black history, black history month, black excellenceAsked, on multiple occasions, if she wanted to pass for white, she’d always reply no. “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.”

She went on to say even stronger words related to the issue in 1945:

“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.”

And you can’t help but love her for her determined, honest attitude toward the subject.

In 1975, 40 years after making an impression in Imitation of Life, Fredi Washington’s contribution to cinema was finally recognized when she was inducted into America’s Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

She died after a series of strokes in 1994, at the age of 90, after a long career of bucking stereotypes, speaking her mind, and opening doors for many fully brown-skinned, and many light-skinned, woman and men of color in the industry. She is a true example of black excellence for this.

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Alex Miller is a freelance writer living in Harlem. His work has appeared in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other places.