Fredericka Carolyn “Fredi” Washington (December 23, 1903 – June 28, 1994) was an accomplished African American dramatic film actress, ……who was active during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance (1920s-1930s). She is best known for her role as Peola in the 1934 version of the film Imitation of Life.
Fredi Washington was born in Savannah, Georgia to Hattie and Robert T. Washington, who according to her sister Isabel, were both African American. Fredi was the second of their five children. Her mother, Hattie, died when Fredi was a girl.
As the oldest girl in her family, Fredi helped raise her younger siblings Isabel, Rosebud and Robert with the help of her grandmother, who the family called “Big Mama.” After her mother’s death, Fredi was sent away to a school for colored/minority girls in Philadelphia because motherless girls during this time were thought of as orphans. Her sister, Isabel, soon followed her.
At some point her father, Robert T. Washington remarried, but his second wife died while carrying his child. He later remarried a third time and produced four more children, giving Fredi a total of eight siblings.
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While still in school in Philadelphia Fredi’s family moved North to Harlem, New York in the Great Migration in an effort to seek better opportunities in the industrial north.
Fredi followed her family to Harlem. She quit school soon after to help financially provide for the family.
She started her career as a dancer in some of the most well-known Harlem chorus-lines of the early 1920’s, in the broadway play, Shuffle Alon. She was in a few of the first black Broadway shows. Because of her beauty and talent (as in the photo with Al Smith below), she easily moved up as a popular featured dancer. She toured internationally with a dance team. During this period she befriended many African American legends including Josephine Baker.
She is best known for her acting career. Washington’s first movie role was in Black and Tan (1929) where she played a dying dancer. She had a small part in The Emperor Jones (1933) with Paul Robeson, based on the play by Eugene O’Neill.
In Imitation of Life, Washington played a young African-American woman who chose to pass as white to seek more opportunities in a society limited by legal racial discrimination in some states and social discrimination in others.
Video from Imitation of Life:
The film was nominated for an Academy Award. In 2007, Time magazine named it among “The 25 Most Important Films on Race”. She was also in Cab Calloway’s Hi-De-Ho (a short film).
Washington turned down a number of chances to pass for white as an actress, which might have led to greater acting opportunities. Obviously of African-European ancestry, she had a light complexion and green eyes. Her beauty and appearance led directors to choose darker skinned actresses for the stereotypical “maid” roles offered to black actresses in those years. At the same time, Hollywood directors did not offer her romantic roles with leading white actors. When Washington played roles in race films intended for black audiences, she often wore heavy makeup to darken her skin. Washington had a role (4th billing) in Fox’s One Mile from Heaven (1937).
Realizing she had few opportunities in Hollywood at that time, Washington quit movies and returned to New York to work in theater. Fredi was often dismayed that she didn’t get to grow as an actress and tired of being asked to pass or to play “tragic mulatto” roles, another stereotype. She wanted to perform in more complicated, versatile roles. Frustrated she quit acting and focused her efforts on African-American civil rights.
Washington became a theater writer in Harlem, NY. 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. It was published 1942-1948.
A very intelligent woman, Fredi was fearlessly 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 led her to become a civil rights activist. Together with Noble Sissle, W.C. Handy and Dick Campbell, Washington was a founding member with Alan Corelli of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG) in New York in 1937. She served as executive secretary, and worked for better opportunities for African-American actors. She also was active with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and worked to secure better hotel accommodations for black actors, who were often discriminated against, as well as less stereotyping and discrimination in roles.
In 1953, Washington was a film casting consultant for Carmen Jones, which starred Dorothy Dandridge, another pioneering African-American actress. She also consulted on casting for George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, an opera performed in revival in 1952 and filmed in 1959.
Washington dated Duke Ellington for some time but, when she saw he was not going to marry her, she started another relationship. She married Lawrence Brown, the trombonist in Duke Ellington’s jazz orchestra, a relationship which ended in divorce.
Washington later married Anthony H. Bell, a dentist. Bell died in the 1980s. Washington died of a stroke, the last of several, on June 28, 1994 in Stamford, Connecticut at the age of 90.According to her sister, Isabel, Fredi never had children.
One of Washington’s sisters, Isabel Washington (May 23, 1909 – May 1, 2008), was also an actress. Isabel married Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first African-American elected to Congress from New York state. At her death, Washington was also survived by her sisters Rosebud Smith of Jamaica, Queens; and Gertrude Penna of Orlando, FL; and a brother, Floyd Washington of Hempstead, New York.
nb George Wein in his autobiography “Myself Among Others” implies that Washington was already married to Brown when she met Ellington & that the affair led to their divorce. This is cited as explanation for the enduring coolness between the two men throughout their lengthy association.
Throughout her life, Washington was often asked if she ever wanted to “pass” for white. Washington, a proud black woman, answered conclusively, “no.”
“I don’t want to pass because I can’t stand insincerity and shams. I am just as much Negro as any of the others identified with the race.” Fay M. Jackson, The Pittsburgh Courier (1911-1950), Pittsburgh, Pa.: Apr 14, 1934.
“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.” The Chicago Defender (National edition) (1921-1967). Chicago, Ill.: Jan 19, 1935
“I wish I had Nina Mae McKinney‘s complexion.” The Pittsburgh Courier (1911-1950) Pittsburgh, Pa.: Mar 2, 1935.
“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.
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.” – EARL CONRAD, “Pass Or Not To Pass?”, The Chicago Defender (1921-1967). Chicago, Ill.: Jun 16, 1945