Feb 18, 2010

Intelligent Fredi Washington

I’ve always been frustrated in my efforts to get a satisfactory glimpse of actress Fredi Washington. She was blessed with beauty, intelligence and talent, but these qualities were not sufficient to make an African American a leading lady in the Hollywood of the thirties. With her pale skin, straight hair and green eyes, Washington was often encouraged to pass for white, but she was admirably steadfast in her determination to be herself.

Savannah, Georgia-born Washington began her career as teenage cabaret dancer in 1920s New York. She won a role opposite Paul Robeson in the stage play Black Boy when a producer discovered her performing in a nightclub (she would later play a small role opposite Robeson in The Emperor Jones (1933)). A dance tour of Europe followed, after which she returned to New York to work as a stage actress. She made her first movie appearance, as a tragic dancer, in the musical short, Black and Tan (1929) with Duke Ellington (she also had a passionate affair with the legendary musician).

By the early thirties, Washington’s notoriety was sufficient to attract the producers of Imitation of Life (1934), who were looking for a light-skinned African American actress to portray Peola, a young woman who attempts to pass for white in order to find better opportunities. Washington accepted the role happily, if not eagerly. She temporarily took up residence with Louise Beavers, who helped her to adjust to life in Hollywood. Though Washington’s experience on the Imitation of Life set was agreeable, and her performance won her raves, she was not offered another substantial role.

As Washington was determined to avoid playing maid roles, she had few prospects for screen work. The intelligent actress also had no intention of waiting around Hollywood for a role that would probably never appear, so she moved back to New York. There she returned to the stage, triumphing in Mamba’s Daughters, opposite Ethel Waters. However, there would not be many strong roles to follow.

With a satisfying acting career out of her reach, Washington funneled her energy into making the entertainment world more accommodating for other African Americans. She helped to found the Negro Actors Guild, and she fought hard for black entertainers. She also became a writer, serving as drama editor and columnist for The People’s Voice, a weekly newspaper published by her brother-in-law Adam Clayton Powell Jr. She eventually married a prominent lawyer and settled into a private, though not secluded life in Connecticut.


  1. Thanks for this information and additional clips.. I really liked Imitation of Life (which I've only seen on youtube) and was curious about the actress. (Better than the 50's remake.) She seemed too old for the role, but a great performance. I look forward to seeing it on TCM sometime.

  2. You know, I'd never thought about it, but I agree, though Washington was perfect for the role in every other way, she was a bit too old to play Peola in Imitation of Life. If you can, I do recommend seeing this somewhere other than YouTube--it's the sort of melodrama that needs the biggest screen you can manage. Thanks for dropping by!

  3. At the time of filming IOL, Fredi was already 30yrs old and 31 by the time it was released in the fall of 34'. She was able to play ingenue role up into her late thirties. Another bit of trivia, Louise Beavers was only about a year older then Fredi and Claudette was only 3 months older. All of Fredi's film performances are now available on DVD for purchase. There’s quite a bit of information on Fredi, mainly through old newspaper archives dissertation papers. Although a writer herself, it’s too bad she never bothered to pen her own memoirs. It would have been a fascinating read. Her first husband was a musician and her second husband was a dentist not a lawyer.