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Fredi Washington and Her Defining Role in Imitation of Life

Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington in the movie "Imitation of Life," 1934.

The Fredi Washington papers at the Amistad Research Center highlights the life of the African American actress, dancer, and activist known for her stage and screen rolls from the 1920-1940s. She was born Fredericka Carolyn Washington in Savannah, Georgia on December 23, 1903, and was one of nine children of Robert T. and Harriet Walker Ward Washington. Fredi's mother died when she was young, and she attended St. Elizabeth's Convent in Cornwell Heights, Pennsylvania with her sister Isabel. Fredi moved to Harlem in 1919 to live with her grandmother. She left school and soon entered show business. She began her career in the early 1920s as a chorus dancer in Nobble Sissle and Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along. She adopted the stage name Edith Warren in 1926 when she acted in the lead role opposite Paul Robeson in Black Boy.

Washington's stage career was interrupted when she became half of the dance team Fredi and Moiret, along with Al Moiret, and toured throughout Europe. Upon returning to the United States in 1928, her musical stage career continued with roles in Sweet Chariot (1930), Singin' the Blues (1931), and Run, Little Chillun (1933). Washington's film career began in 1929 with an appearance in Duke Ellington's short sound feature, Black and Tan Fantasy. Her best known role was that of Peola Johnson in Imitation of Life (1934). Washington's racially ambiguous look mirrored that of Peola’s, leading some to speculate that Washington, like her character in the film, passed for white during her life. A 1935 letter written to Fredi by a fan named James Samson echoes this sentiment. Samson wrote:

“I saw your picture of Imitation of Life and [I] enjoyed it very much and I want to let you know just how well every part was played….I like the part you played because I am colored and I think every person look as much like white as you did, I think that they should pass for white not because I believe that they are better than colored people but I believe your chances are better if you could pass for white.”

Washington’s role in Imitation of Life elicited strong reactions from fans, many who saw the movie multiple times according to their declarations in her fan mail. The correspondence to Fredi regarding her racial background and Peola’s character are quite interesting to read. In one letter, she was asked a barrage of intrusive questions regarding her racial/ethnic makeup by a fan named Mary Flecknoe who wrote:

“It is quite evident that your white blood is in the ascendancy over your colored blood, because you looked rather like a slightly dusky foreigner; say a Spanish girl. I wonder just how much white or dark blood you have. I should say you are a quadroon, or perhaps an octoroon. Would you mind telling me? Please don’t think me impertinent, but I truly am interested in this problem of people of mixed blood.”

Fredi was certainly not interested in passing for white. Throughout her career, she was active in efforts to end discrimination in the film and theater industries. Her political activism began in the 1930s, when she participated in boycotts and demonstrations organized by her brother-in-law, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who had married her sister Isabel. She cofounded the Negro Actors Guild and was active in the Joint Actors Equity-Theater League Committee. Washington contributed a weekly column devoted to theater news in Powell's newspaper, The People's Voice. In a February 1944 column, Washington clearly displayed her advocacy for African American civil rights not only inside the entertainment industry but outside of it as well. When MGM was slated to do a film on the controversial book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Washington was skeptical about whether the studio could address and portray slavery with the seriousness and sensitivity that it deserved. She stated:

Fredi Washington, undated.

“While the book [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] is informative and positive propaganda against the vicious article of slavery which is still a blot on our country, I most definitely am against any picturization of it by MGM or any other studio…..White America has not accepted the emancipation of the Negro. And for White America to see parade across the silver screen Negroes as they would like to see them—in their so called places—would tend to bring to the surface many of those inhibitions which have been laying dormant in their breasts.”

Washington retired from her acting career following her marriage to Lawrence Brown, a trombonist in Ellington's orchestra, in July 1933. However, her retirement lasted less than a year when she appeared with Paul Robeson in Emperor Jones later that year. Washington divorced Brown in 1948 and married Hugh Anthony Bell, a Connecticut dentist, in 1952. After her marriage to Bell, she retired permanently from show business. She died of pneumonia following a stroke in Stamford, Connecticut on June 28, 1994. The finding aid for the Fredi Washington papers can be found here.

Images from the Fredi Washington papers. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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