Many quoted Fredi Washington as being the finest dramatic actress of her time. But because of the racism and discrimination of the time and because of Fredi's light complexion and race she didn't get to become a movie superstar and receive many well-deserved roles that would display her acting expertise to become a well-acclaimed legendary actress.
Fredi Washington is better known as "Peola" from "Imitation of Life" - the black girl who passes as white. The role was far from the person Fredi really was. Fredi was as proud as a Black person could be. She took the role to showcase her dramatic talents and she did it very beautifully but throughout her whole life people thought she really was "Peola."
"Imitation of Life" was a shocking and daring movie of the time. Fredi Washington received wondrous reviews and Hollywood was in love with Fredi Washington's beauty and acting talent. Studios were ready to sign her to a contract on the spot but on one condition - they wanted Fredi to pass for white and then they could make her as famous as Constance Bennett, Myrna Loy, Bette Davis, Claudette Colbert, Kay Francis, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. Fredi was familiar with being asked to pass as white. In her early dancing years a white man who was in love with her told her if she would consent he would take her to Europe, change her name, teach her French and make her the biggest star of the continent if only she rid herself of the burden of her race. This was more then insulting to Fredi. Fredi told him as she told them all "why can't I be what I am - a Negro and be a star." Fredi felt if she brought into passing to have a better life then she would be believing in the "black inferiority complex," which she didn't. Fredi felt you didn't have to be white to be good and somebody! Besides, Fredi felt there's no guarantee that you'll be successful just because your white. Fredi for sure had no complaints about her life. Racism and discrimination was other people's illness not her's and she didn't let anyone ruin what she wanted to do in life.
Fredi fought with studio bosses even going publicly telling how ignorant Hollywood was and how they didn't appreciate Negro beauties and their talents that are just as good as the whites. Fredi said "If a Negro lady fits the beauty and talent standards of Hollywood, why can't she be a star?" Fredi speaking out on racism and discrimination usually ruined the few chances she had but she wouldn't bite her tongue for anyone. Unlike other black actresses and actors, Fredi really wasn't interested in being involved with Hollywood. She liked being a East coast stage actress. She enjoyed making movies, especially in Hollywood, but at the same time she didn't want to waste time at a place that wouldn't appreciate her.
Fredi Washington got other chances to show her talents in other good films but "Imitation of Life" is what she is best known for. Fredi didn't really like the "Imitation of Life" story but it was her only chance to show her acting talents and she did that very well. She showed how great of an actress she was because she really made people believe she was really the woman she was playing. Fredi wanted to show she could play any role and make it believeable. On screen Fredi really became Peola but off screen Fredi was Fredi - determined, bold, strong, and outspoken who constantly was going to the director asking for changes in the role and script. For instance, in one scene Fredi was suppose to say, "I want to be white." Fredi told the director that she didn't feel that was fitting. She told the director not everyone wants to be white but wants the freedom, equality and opportunities whites get and that's the only reason someone might pass. Fredi got her way.
Fredi had many talents she should be known for. Fredi Washington was a star before "Imitation of Life."
But, let's start at the beginning Fredi Washington was born Fredericka Carolyn Washington in Savannah, Georgia. She came from a big family of brothers and sisters. One of her sisters Isabel was in show business and a popular actress before Fredi. Isabel was in "St. Louis Blues" with Bessie Smith and they have a fight scene together. Isabel then retired and married Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Fredi was always known for being highly intelligent. Fredi's education began at St. Elizabeth Convent in Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania. She attended a few Catholic schools as well. She then attended the Egri School of Dramatic Writing and the Christopher School of Languages.
Fredi danced as a solo and with a male partner. Fredi was a divine, wowing dancer who thrilled audiences with her graceful moves and energy. Fredi danced alongside Josephine Baker and was good friends with her. Fredi stood up for Josephine many times when the lighter complected girls would tease and taunt Josephine for being browner. Fredi toured Europe dazzling audiences with her beauty and dancing talents in places like Gaumount Palace and Chateau Madrid (Paris), Casino Nice, Green Park Hotel (London), Trocadero and Floria Palast (Berlin) where she always received the highest compliments. Royalty were even moved by Fredi, Fredi even showed royalty figures how to do the "Black Bottom" and other popular dances of the time.
Fredi's first film was "Black and Tan" where she danced with Duke Ellington's band at The Cotton Club. Fredi steals the film with her dancing and her exuberant acting talent. In the early 1930's, Fredi became a full-time actress. Throughout the 1930's Fredi starred in quite a few but significant films like "Emperor Jones" with Paul Robeson as her leading man, "Mills Blue Rhythm Band," "Ouanga" and "One Mile From Heaven" with Bill Robinson as her leading man where she showed her versatility and how easily she could adapt to any role. She always was a presence on screen and always gave memorable performances. Fredi was at her best in thrilling, daring, shocking, and femme fatale dramas.
Anytime there was a role for "confused Black girls who wanted to pass for white," Fredi's phone ringed off the hooks. Producers of shows thought she was best at "passing" roles and couldn't see her in any other type of roles. From stage and screen, most roles Fredi was offered were "black girls who pass for white" type of roles and Fredi turned down many because she felt it was degrading and she didn't want to be used as a guinea pig. But, Fredi knew the passing roles were the only ones she could get so she took advantage of the roles and through them she hoped the world would see her as a great, compelling actress.
On the stage Fredi was an audience and critic favorite. She received favorable reviews in stage productions like "Run, Little Chillun," "Singin' the Blues," "Sweet Chariot," and "How Long Til Summer." Fredi best stage role was in "Mamba's Daughters" with Ethel Waters. "Mamba's Daughters" had a long run on Broadway and it was a big hit for Fredi but another role involving racial confusion and tragic mulatto problems.
When Fredi wasn't thrilling audiences with her acting and dancing talents she was thrilling people with her fight to end discrimination towards Blacks, especially black actors and actresses, through her voice and writings.
Fredi helped form the Negro Actors Guild with her friends Noble Sissle, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson to help Black performers in need and help fight discrimination and win equality for Blacks, particularly Black performers who really at the time had no protection. Fredi was the executive director of the Negro Actors Guild and many famous performers and actors/actresses were members like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Edna Thomas, Eubie Blake and many others. Fredi also was Administrative Secretary for the Joint Actors Equity - Theater League Committee on Hotel Accommodations for Negro Actors throughout the United States.
Fredi along with her brother-in-law Adam Clayton Powell Jr. formed The People's Voice where Fredi wrote about her life, career, and wrote about the terrible unexplainable crimes of racism and discrimination against Blacks in and out of show business. She also wrote words of encouragement for many Blacks around the world.
Fredi retired from Show Business during the 1950's. She married a prominent Black doctor Anthony Bell and lived in Connecticut until her death. In the 1930's to the mid-1940's Fredi was married to Lawrence Brown - trombonist with Duke Ellington's band.
Fredi was more appreciated by the generations of movie fans after her time then in her time. Fredi was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975, many movie historians interviewed her to hear and tell her story but Fredi deserves far more.
Simply because Fredi was considered "white looking," not dark enough to be black to play roles of Black women (which is ignorant) she didn't reach superstar status or even legend status or become a household name like Josephine Baker, Ethel Waters, Nina Mae McKinney, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge. Most of these ladies were just probably 2 shades darker then Fredi and most had more white features then Fredi. Most of the black actresses who've had success in Hollywood and in show business had white features so how contradictory it was for people to judge Fredi as white-looking just because her skin was pale. Fredi had a glorious career, never take away her admirable accomplishments and talents, but Fredi should be as iconic as Bette Davis. Ignorance and discrimination from others held Fredi back from that position. Fredi's talent should have mattered more then anything. NO ONE EVER DOUBTED FREDI'S TALENT but people felt she couldn't portray a Black woman or be successful with a black cast or be an image of a black woman just because of her pale skin. Blacks felt Fredi didn't look like them so they felt they couldn't relate. Through Fredi, Blacks saw the very race they had contempt for. Whites felt Fredi wasn't a true black woman and they surely didn't want to see a Black who were their color because it reminded them of their bloody past and it reminded them it was their doing that some Blacks looked white. Black and white sexual relations, many were rapes were the cause of mulattoes - a name given by whites to Blacks with white ancestry to keep track of them so they wouldn't pass.
Fredi could have been a fine image of a Black woman because she was one and she knew the struggles, strengths, hurts, loves, mind, heart, soul, and joy of a Black woman. But sadly, people felt Fredi couldn't possibly be a role model for Black women or the personification of a Black Beauty. Which brings the questions, What is Black then? Why was Fredi so judged because of her complexion when the history of black women of show business who had success were white looking, ones who look truly African didn't go far, even today, many have white features, even if they do have a little color in their skin? So, having white features is considered okay as long as you have some color in your skin.
Too many have been told their too dark or too light. What really is Black then? When will Blacks and Whites accept the variations of Black people, the darks, browns, and lights and the in-betweens? Maybe Black is the wrong race name for such a colorful race. Until the Black race learn to accept each other and stop the on-going black-on-black prejudice and discrimination based on skin color, features, and class, the Black race will always be at a standstill. Black people can't tell white people to stop discriminating and being prejudice if they do it to their own people.
It's ironic that Fredi was so judged because of her light skin. Fredi did look her race she just had fair skin. Fredi also proved her loyalty and pride for her race by her actions. She wasn't exempt from judgement. She faced judgement and discrimination from blacks because of her complexion and racism from whites because of her race. It seems people wanted Fredi to pass to prove their point, so they could say "I told you so." Fredi never gave them the satisfaction. Fredi had the strength and integrity of a Black woman to keep on keeping on. The Blacks who disliked Fredi were ones who had self hatred themselves. Many hated Fredi for the very thing they wanted...her complexion. She was what some wanted to be in color and if they were in her shoes they would pass or showboat their lightness. Whites wanted to let Fredi know even though she had their complexion, she still was Black and could never be them and they treated her as they did other Blacks. If Fredi would of passed, she probably would be more remembered (like Merle Oberon who hid her true racial identity) because it would give people plenty to talk about but Fredi didn't and her name is hardly known as widely as Lena Horne, Josephine Baker and Dorothy Dandridge, though Fredi has the same accomplishments in entertainment and race relations.
Blacks felt Fredi wanted to be white but just stayed Black out of pity and fear of being caught if she did pass and was just using the talents she inherited from the race to make it. Some Blacks are proud of their culture and the talents they inherited from their race but don't like being Black, looking Black or being of the Black race and had self-hatred because of brainwashing from society. Fredi wasn't anything like that. Fredi was constantly reassuring The Black and White press, that she was proud of her race and that she never would pass and never thought of it. Fredi proved just because she was white people's color it still doesn't make them the same. Fredi was always seeming to say, "your keeping an eye on me but you have your eye on the wrong one."
There were black stars who had more color in their skin who didn't want to be black, yet, their largely remembered in Black and Entertainment history. There were many Blacks who passed for white not physically but mentally and culturally and their remembered and they loathed being Black and did nothing for their race only for themselves but people always had curiousity about Fredi who proved countless times her sincerity and loyalty to her race.
There's a little story about Fredi... In a beauty parlor, regular gossiping was going on, a beautician was talking about how "Fredi Washington wants to be white. She's just like Peola!" Then when Fredi's hair was done. Fredi turned around and introduced herself to the hair stylist. The hair stylist who was talking about Fredi was doing Fredi's hair. The hair stylist was ashame and shut up quick. Fredi always had to prove people wrong and took joy in it sometimes.
No matter how much fame Fredi Washington had and no matter how whites seem to like her, Fredi never forgot how her Black people were suffering and with her name and fame she tried to bring this to the public's attention and tried to make changes. The ones who were doing all the complaining about life, race, and Fredi were doing nothing.
Fredi put as much or more heart and soul into fighting for her people as she did into her performances on stage and screen. Fredi did so much for her race and never contradicted herself or her pride like other Blacks who were always saying how black and proud they were but their actions showed otherwise. Fredi never felt she needed "white success," "cross-over success," or "white acceptance" to feel important. Fredi may not have been black on the outside but she surely was on the inside. Fredi didn't have to discover her blackness, she was blackness, more so then a darker Black woman. Just because a person is dark doesn't mean their in touch with their culture and race or proud to be Black. Maybe being close to white people's color made Fredi see how Black she really was. She was more prouder to be Black then a darker woman.
The very Black race that was ranting and raving about how unfair it was being judged by the color of their skin or how they looked, judged Fredi, Fredi fought her whole life trying to make people judge her by her talents, and not how she looked. Fredi fought both whites and blacks trying to prove color doesn't matter, just talent, a person's heart, and being a credit to their race and the world. Fredi showed Black isn't just a color, its a culture full of strength, pride, talent, enrichment, accomplishment, endurance, achievement and no one displayed that more then Fredi. Fredi never let anyone's ignorance tamper her life, career, or thinking; people's ignorance only made Fredi stronger.
It's rather sad and unimportant that when Fredi Washington is talked about, people usually start off "Light skin Fredi Washington," or something to that effect. Her skin color is more discussed then anything else. A person wouldn't say about someone "Dark-skin so and so" because it would seem disrespectful. Someone else's color wouldn't be an issue but people seem to like to either disrespect or make importance of someone with light skin. Fredi was one who didn't value or loath her skin color. She couldn't help what her complexion was but she never felt above other Blacks though other Blacks, particularly Black men admired her light skin and tried to put her on a pedestal above other Black women but Fredi wouldn't be anyone's "fake white woman" - not for Hollywood or a Black man. Fredi's color shouldn't matter that should be the least thing discussed compared to her fascinating life and career. It seems Blacks are more color obsessed then the race they claim is! Anyone who's Fredi's complexion is always under scrutiny. But, Fredi proved all the stereotypes wrong of a so-called "mulatto." Fredi was never tragic, confused, weak, out of touch with reality or her race. People seem to want Fredi to be a "tragic mulatto" so they would have something to talk about but Fredi didn't give anyone that satisfaction. Fredi never forgot where she came from and because she was living good it didn't make her forget that other blacks were suffering and she used her fame to help anyway she could. While other Black stars were afraid to speak out about racism because of fear of ruining their career and losing white fans, Fredi spoke out about racism and many times she got in trouble and her career was almost ruined, but that was Fredi, a tough brood with a heart of gold who spoke her mind.
In anything Fredi Washington did, she was a sight to behold from her dancing, acting, writing and speeches she put her heart and soul into everything. Fredi Washington is a extremely talented lady who's been overlooked in Black History and Hollywood history and it's almost criminal for someone like Fredi Washington who really made a difference to be overlooked. When Fredi is remembered, she's only remembered for how she looked and as "Peola" never for her many other talents, wonderful career, fulfilling life, and her contributions to movies, stage, literature, and to Black history.
Give Fredi her wish now to be judged by her talent not her color. Fredi had a life and career people only dream about but she lived it. She was by no means a tragic mulatto but gifted and Black and being Black was something Fredi was most proud of. Fredi Washington always felt keep fighting until there's nothing to fight for.