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Fredi Washington

Fredi Washington, 1934
Born December 23, 1903(1903-12-23)
Savannah, Georgia
United States
Died June 28, 1994 (aged 90)
Stamford, Connecticut
United States
Spouse(s) married Lawrence Brown, the longtime trombonist in Duke Ellington's orchestra.

Fredericka Carolyn "Fredi" Washington (December 23, 1903 - June 28, 1994) was an accomplished dramatic African-American film actress, most active in the 1920s- 1930s. Frustrated at limited opportunities, she became an activist and journalist. Washington was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG) in 1937 to create better professional opportunities. She also was Entertainment Editor of People's Voice, founded in 1942.

Washington earned notice for her portrayal of Peola, a young African-American woman who passed for white in the 1934 Academy Award-nominated film Imitation of Life. She also appeared with Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones in 1933.


Acting career

Washington's first movie role was in Black and Tan Fantasy (1929), followed by a small part in The Emperor Jones (1933) with Paul Robeson. The latter film was based on a play by Eugene O'Neill.

In Imitation of Life, Washington played a young African-American woman who chose to pass for white to seek more opportunities in a society limited by discrimination. The film was nominated for an Academy Award. In 2007 Time magazine named it among the "The 25 Most Important Films on Race".[1]

The role had poignant meaning for Washington, as she turned down a number of opportunities to pass for white as an actress. If she had chosen to do so, she might have become a movie star. Having a light complexion, green eyes, and great beauty, Washington found it hard to win roles and audiences given the limited opportunities of the time. She was too light skinned and elegant to play stereotypical "maid" roles. Because she was African American, however, Hollywood directors did not offer her romantic roles with leading white actors. General romances did not then feature African Americans. When Washington played roles in films 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) [1]. Realizing that there was no future in Hollywood for an African-American actress with ivory-toned skin, Washington quit movies altogether and returned to New York to work in theater.

In addition to acting, Washington worked as a theater writer and was Entertainment Editor for People's Voice, a leftist newspaper for African Americans founded by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a minister and politician in New York City. It was published 1942-1948.[2]

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.[3] 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, as well as less stereotyping and discrimination in acting 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.[4]

Personal life

A native of Savannah, Georgia and the oldest of five children, Fredi Washington moved with her family in the Great Migration north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. As a young woman she went to New York to pursue studies in performance, including dance and an acting career.

She married Lawrence Brown, the trombonist in Duke Ellington's jazz orchestra, a relationship which ended in divorce.[5]

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.[6] It was documented that Washington had children, but she preferred to keep her personal life out of the public eye.

Washington's sister, 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, Long Island, NY.[7]


  1. ^ The 25 Most Important Films on Race: "Imitation of Life", Time, Feb 2007, accessed 3 Dec 2008
  2. ^ People's Voice, Historical Society of Philadelphia, 2005, accessed 3 Dec 2008
  3. ^ "Fredi Washington", Online Encyclopedia, Black Past 2007-2008, accessed 3 Dec 2008
  4. ^ The 25 Most Important Films on Race: "Imitation of Life", Time, Feb 2007, accessed 3 Dec 2008
  5. ^ Sheila Rule, "Fredi Washington, 90, Actress; Broke Ground for Black Artists", New York Times, accessed 14 Dec 2008
  6. ^ Sheila Rule, "Fredi Washington, 90, Actress; Broke Ground for Black Artists", New York Times, accessed 14 Dec 2008
  7. ^ Sheila Rule, "Fredi Washington, 90, Actress; Broke Ground for Black Artists", New York Times, accessed 14 Dec 2008

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