Fredi Washington

Fredi Washington was a pioneering African-American actress whose fair skin and green eyes often were impediments to her showing her extraordinary acting skills. Her talent was often overlooked because of people’s obsession with her race and color. In the few films in which she acted her enormous talent as an actress couldn’t be hidden.

Her first film performance was with Duke Ellington in a musical short, Black and Tan (1929), as a dancer. In Hollywood she was urged to “pass” for fully white by studio heads, who said they would make her a bigger star than Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Constance Bennett and Greta Garbo. Fredi refused. Her best-known role was as the original Peola, in the controversial film Imitation of Life (1934). She appeared with Paul Robeson in The Emperor Jones (1933) and in a few other films with her skin darkened. Her best work was on the stage, notably in “Mamba’s Daughters” with Ethel Waters. Fredi never made it to the top like her contemporaries Ethel Waters, Josephine Baker and Nina Mae McKinney because she didn’t look “black” enough. But Fredi had what it took, as is more than evident in the few films that she did do.

Her best work was as an activist. She was the head of the Negro Actors Guild, helping black performers get a fair chance in the entertainment industry. Hopefully, people who discover her work today will see her beauty and talent shine through and look beyond her skin color, unlike most people of her time.

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