“Incredible Black Women You Should Know About” – The Series
Frederika “Fredi” Washington
‘The Fair-Skinned Black Actress Who Refused to “Pass” in 1930s Hollywood’
(Dec. 23, 1903 – June 28, 1994)
By DonnaMarie Woodson
This article, from the June 2022 edition of the Charmeck Chronicle, is published here with permission of the author.
Fredericka Carolyn “Fredi” Washington was an American stage and film actress, civil rights activist, performer, and writer. Washington was of African American descent. She was one of the first people of color to gain recognition for film and stage work in the 1920s and 1930s.
Washington was active in the Harlem Renaissance (the 1920s–1930s), her best-known role being Peola in the 1934 film version of Imitation of Life, where she plays a young light-skinned woman who decides to pass as white. Her last film role was in One Mile from Heaven (1937), after which she left Hollywood and returned to New York to work in theatre and civil rights activism.
“…you don’t have to be white to be good. I’ve spent most of my life proving to those who think otherwise …
I am a Negro, and I am proud of it.”
Fredi Washington embraced her race at the height of Jim Crow.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, Ms. Washington moved with her family to Harlem during the Great Migration, when Black families fled the Jim Crow South searching for new opportunities in Northern cities. The daughter of a postal worker and a dancer, Washington had green eyes and light skin that contradicted the era’s common expectations of what an African American “looked like.”
Ms. Washington knew that regardless of her looks, the era’s construction of the Black race belonged to anyone who had even a drop of Black heritage. This prejudice meant she would always be considered African American by white audiences… unless she simply “passed” as white.
But it also alienated people from others of their culture. A Black woman who passed might be considered white, but she ran the constant risk of losing her privilege among whites once they discovered that she was really Black—and of being shunned by Black people once they learned she was claiming whiteness.
Racial “passing” allowed Black Americans to sidestep racism faced by Black people and claim the privilege of whiteness in public spaces. According to historian Robert Fikes, Jr., “the practice was seen by many African Americans as outwitting the system of oppression and making laughable fools of those who countenanced notions of white racial purity and supremacy.”
Instead of turning her back on her race, Fredi immersed herself in the growing Harlem Renaissance, during which her neighborhood turned into a cultural oasis and a hotbed of African-Americans artistic production. Already a talented singer and dancer, she became a chorus girl, then an actress, traveling to Europe and starring in stage productions in New York. She also performed with Duke Ellington’s band.
Ms. Washington’s entertainment career began in 1921 as a chorus girl in the Broadway musical Shuffle Along. Dancer Josephine Baker hired her as a member of the “Happy Honeysuckles,” a cabaret group. Baker became a friend and mentored Fredi. Ms. Washington’s collaboration with Baker led to her discovery by producer Lee Shubert. And in 1926, recommended for a co-starring role on the Broadway stage with Paul Robeson in the play Black Boy.
She quickly became a famous, featured dancer and toured internationally with her dancing partner, Al Moiret.
Washington turned to acting in the late 1920s. Her first movie role was in Black and Tan (1929), in which she played a Cotton
Club dancer who was dying. She played a small part in The Emperor Jones (1933), starring Robeson. Washington also played Cab Calloway’s love interest in the short Cab Calloway’s Hi-De-Ho (1934).
Imitation of Life: The Politics of Race
In the ’20s and ’30s, Black actors had few opportunities in Hollywood. Most Black people on film could be seen only in “race films” designed for all-Black audiences. Those who did break into movies for white audiences were relegated to subservient or stereotypical roles.
But Washington broke through that barrier in Imitation of Life – ironically, in a film that explored the practice of “passing” that she had declined to adopt in her own life. In 1934, she played the role of Peola, the daughter of a Black housekeeper (Louise Beavers) whose life is closely intertwined with that of a white widow and her daughter. Peola turns her back on her mother, who dies a dramatic death from her life of self-abnegation and sorrow over her daughter’s betrayal.
The movie, which starred Claudette Colbert as the white friend, dealt frankly with interracial identity, passing, and the similarities and differences between Black and white women – themes that had never been thoroughly explored in mainstream Hollywood. And, unlike all films for white audiences that came before it, it essentially treated the stories of its Black and white characters as equally important.
This statement from Fredi Washington resonates with me: “But to pass, for economic or other advantages, would have meant that I swallowed, whole hog, the idea of Black inferiority.”
The concept of Black inferiority is a powerful tool. I see its effects in politics daily. Some Black folks buy into this idea of Black Inferiority and twist it to: If I can just get white people to accept me, it proves that I’m not inferior but superior to the average Black person. A total disconnect from reality.
Ironically, Washington’s breakthrough role in Imitation of Life cut short her acting career. Since white Hollywood refused to cast Black women in romantic roles, she couldn’t get leading roles; also, her skin was so light, many identified her as white, and she couldn’t get more stereotypical roles as a maid. She became so identified with her character, Peola, that it was hard for her to receive other parts.
She made her last movie appearance just three years after Imitation of Life.
But her career wasn’t over yet though. In 1937, Washington helped found what would become the Negro Actors Guild of America, a group that advocated for less stereotypical roles and better working conditions for Black actors.
She also became a drama critic, writing theatrical reviews for African American newspapers, and served as a casting consultant for films and theatrical productions that concerned race.
In 1933, Washington married Lawrence Brown, the trombonist in Duke Ellington’s jazz orchestra. That marriage ended in divorce.
In 1952, Washington married a Stamford dentist, Hugh Anthony Bell, and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut.
Fredi Washington Bell died, age 90, on June 28, 1994. She died from pneumonia following a series of strokes at St. Joseph Medical Center in Stamford, Connecticut.
Legacy and honors
• In 1975, Washington was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
• In 1979, Washington received the CIRCA Award for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.
• In 1981, Washington received an award from the Audience Development Company (AUDELCO), a New York-based nonprofit group devoted to preserving and promoting African American theater.