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On this date in 1902, Step'n Fetchit was born. He was a Black actor known for his stereotypical film portrayal of Black minstrel characters.
Born of West Indian immigrants in Key West, FL., Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry (his name at birth) attended a Catholic boarding school until he was 12. He then joined the vaudeville circuit, accompanied by comic Ed Lee, performing a minstrel act called “Step 'n' Fetchit: Two Dancing Fools from Dixie.” In the early 1920s, Perry went solo and retained Step'n Fetchit as his stage name. As Step'n Fetchit, he was very popular on the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA) performance tour. He was such a hit with white audiences that his Step 'n Fetchit character popularized the insulting “coon" image to an unprecedented degree in the medium of film.
Perry moved to Hollywood and appeared in more than 50 films over the next 50 years. He usually played comic relief roles. Some of them include In Old Kentucky 1927, The Galloping Ghost and Wild Horse (1931), Judge Priest (1934), The Big Timers (1945), Miracle in Harlem (1948), and The Sun Shines Bright (1953). Perry reached the apex of his career co-starring with the Will Rogers in several films, including John Ford’s Steamboat Round the Bend (1935). He was also the first Black actor to become a millionaire.
He became an almost mythical figure in African American popular culture. Controversy has surrounded the Step'n Fetchit character. But Perry was a true actor, highly literate, and had a concurrent career writing for the Chicago Defender, one of the nation's best-respected Black newspapers. His typical film persona and stage name have long been synonymous with the stereotype of the servile, shiftless, simple-minded Black man in early 20th Century American film.
A more recent revisionist view sees his film persona as ultimately subversive of the status quo. His character was seen, especially by Blacks, as degrading to African America, but later a different understanding of his character emerged: he was the Black person who (in film) undermined his white oppressors by refusing to work or cooperate by appearing to be lazy and stupid, but this was in fact an act of defiance. Perry also found himself in conflict with civil rights leaders who criticized him personally for the film roles he portrayed. Nevertheless, in 1976, the Hollywood chapter of the NAACP awarded him a Special NAACP Image Award, acknowledging that, despite the stereotype of his character, his had been a trailblazing career without which many Black film careers might never have been possible.
Lincoln Step'n Fetchit Perry suffered a stroke in 1976, which in effect ended his career. He died on November 19, 1985, in Woodland Hills, CA.
Reference: Africana The Encyclopedia of the African and
African American Experience
Editors: Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr.