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*On this date in 1903, Fredi Washington was born. She was a Black actress, writer, dancer, and singer. From Savannah, Georgia, Fredericka Carolyn Washington was one of five children, her older sister Isabelle Washington was also a performer.
Her education began at St. Elizabeth Convent in Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania. She then attended the Egri School of Dramatic Writing and the Christopher School of Languages, where her attractions included casting, writing, dancing, singing, and community. Washington’s career began dancing in nightclubs. From 1922 to 1926, she toured with Sissle and Blake’s Shuffle Along.
Assuming the stage name Edith Warren, she was cast as the lead in Black Boy with Paul Robeson in 1926. With work hard to find in America she toured Europe, some of her engagements included Gaumont Palace and Chateau Madrid (Paris), Casino Nice, Green Park Hotel (London), Trocadero, and Floria Palast (Berlin). Washington was cast in Sweet Chariot (1930) in New York, Singin’ the Blues (1931, and Run, Little Chillun (1933).
Her film career began concurrently with performances in Black and Tan Fantasy (1929), The Old Man and the Mountain, and Emperor Jones (1933); she married Lawrence Brown of the Duke Ellington Band later that year. One of Washington’s primary concerns was the relationship between Black and white women. She brought to the medium a new conception of Black women in general and nowhere was this better displayed than her role in the film Imitation of Life (1934). So convincing was Washington’s portrayal of the Tragic Mulatto, that many felt she was (in real life) anti-Black.
Friends like Bobby Short and her sister's husband, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell said that she never hid behind the lightness of her complexion. Washington’s commitment to American Civil Rights was just as strong as her professionalism in the theater and cinema arts. She was one of the founders of the Negro Actors Guild and from 1937 to 1938 was the organization’s secretary. She was an administrative secretary for the Joint Actors Equity-Theater League Committee on Hotel Accommodations for Negro Actors throughout the United States.
Washington was on the radio in the Jewish immigrant comedy The Goldbergs and performed specials for the National Urban League on CBS radio. Other films include Drums of the Jungle (1935) and One Mile From Heaven (1937). She also appeared in the stage production of Lysistra (1946), A Long Way From Home (1948), and How Long Till Summer (1949). In 1952, she married Anthony Bell, a dentist, and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975. Fredi Washington died on June 28, 1994.
Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia
Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine
Copyright 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York