“Early in my career it was suggested that I might get further by passing as French or something exotic. But to pass, for economic or other advantages, would have meant that I swallowed, whole hog, the idea of Black inferiority.”

– Fredi Washington

In 1903, Frederika ‘Fredi’ Washington was born in Savannah, Georgia, to a dancer and postal worker. Her family moved to Harlem during the Great Migration, which forced families to leave southern American states to escape the oppressive Jim Crow laws. 

Washington’s career in entertainment began when she moved to New York City when she was 16. In 1922, she made her stage debut as a dancer in the touring musical Shuffle Along which also starred Josephine Baker. Despite some early success in New York, she found a lack of opportunity for black actors and so toured Europe with her dance partner, Al Moiret. Later, returning to America, she was cast in Black and Tan Fantasy in 1929 alongside Duke Ellington. She continued to appear on stage for next couple of years, establishing herself as a respected dramatic actress. 

In 1934, Washington was cast in Imitation of Life as Peola, alongside Academy Award-winning actress Claudette Colbert. One of the major themes of the film revolved around Peola, a young black woman played by Washington, who wants to ‘pass’ as white. Washington’s character eventually disowns her African-American mother, played by Louise Beavers. As well as being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, the film had a more lasting legacy: in 2005, Imitation of Life was inducted into the United States National Film Registry and in 2007 was named as one of ‘The 25 Most Important Films on Race’ by Time. 

Washington was aware that she could have denied her African-American heritage to ‘pass’ as white within the film industry, especially after the acclaim her performance in Imitation of Life received. She had ‘light’ skin and green eyes. Given the levels of oppression and racism, some African-Americans with lighter skin tried hard to ‘pass’ as white. But after growing up in the Harlem Renaissance, Washington had been surrounded by black artists and she was fiercely proud of her heritage.

As such, Washington wouldn’t allow the film studio to cast her in roles which required her to ‘pass’ as white and despite critical acclaim surrounding her performance, her role in Imitation of Life absolutely didn’t kickstart her career. Washington had only had one film credit following it – a role in One Mile from Heaven in 1937. Some argue that her light-skinned presentation prevented her from working in black roles, and her features prevented her from working in white roles.

Far from letting this put a halt to her ambitions, in 1937 Washington helped to found what would later become the Negro Actors Guild of America. This was a group which lobbied for better conditions, pay and treatment for black actors. Washington was their first executive secretary. She also lobbied for better lodging conditions for African-American performers as part of her work with Joint Actors Equity-Theatre League Committee. 

Washington also continued to be artistically committed to theatre. She became the drama editor for The People’s Voice, a New York weekly newspaper and continued her work in the theatre with roles in Lysistrata in 1946 and A Long Way From Home in 1948. 

In her personal life, Washington was married to Lawrence Brown, a member of Duke Ellington’s band. After her divorce from Brown, Washington married Anthony Bell and retired to Stanford.

In 1975, Washington’s contribution to cinema was awarded with an induction into America’s Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

In 1994, at age 90, she died in Connecticut. 

©The Heroine Collective 2019 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include: Erin Blackmore, ‘The Fair-Skinned Black Actress Who Refused to ‘Pass’ in 1930s Hollywood’, History.com, 27.02.19, https://www.history.com/news/fredi-washington-black-actress-hollywood-jim-crow-era [last accessed on 05.05.19] // Sheila Rule, ‘Fredi Washington, 90, Actress; Broke Ground for Black Artists’, New York Times, 30.06.94, https://www.nytimes.com/1994/06/30/obituaries/fredi-washington-90-actress-broke-ground-for-black-artists.html [last accessed on 11.05.19] // Stephen Bourne, ‘Obituary: Fredi Washington’, The Independent, 04.07.94, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-fredi-washington-1411510.html [last accessed on 11.05.19] // ‘Fredi Washington’, Black History Now, 26.08.11, http://blackhistorynow.com/fredi-washington/ [last accessed on 12.05.19] // Nancy Finlay, ‘Remembering Fredi Washington: Actress, Activist and Journalist’, Connecticut History, 22.02.17, https://connecticuthistory.org/remembering-fredi-washington-actress-activist-and-journalist/ [last accessed 19.05.19]

Sara Sherwood

Written by Sara Sherwood

Sara is currently studying for an MA in Manchester. She spends the majority of her time sitting in a library, thinking about books.

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