Fredi Washington: A Proud African American Actress And Activist


Fredi Washington: Born December 23, 1903 – Homegoing June 28, 1994

American stage and film actress, civil rights activist and journalist, Fredericka (Fredi) Washington is best known for her role as of Peola in Imitation of Life (1934), where she portrayed a young light-skinned African American who attempted to distance herself from her Blackness by passing as white.  Unlike the character Peola however,   Fredi Washington herself, was far from self hating.   Although Washington was constantly encouraged to pass as white, she vehemently refused and always made clear that she was a proud, Black woman and that she would not hide who she was.  According to the Heroine Collective:

“Washington was aware that she could have denied her African-American heritage to ‘pass’ as white within the film industry, especially after the acclaim her performance in Imitation of Life received. She had ‘light’ skin and green eyes. Given the levels of oppression and racism, some African-Americans with lighter skin tried hard to ‘pass’ as white. But after growing up in the Harlem Renaissance, Washington had been surrounded by black artists and she was fiercely proud of her heritage.  As such, Washington wouldn’t allow the film studio to cast her in roles which required her to ‘pass’ as white and despite critical acclaim surrounding her performance, her role in Imitation of Life absolutely didn’t kickstart her career. Washington had only had one film credit following it – a role in One Mile from Heaven in 1937. Some argue that her light-skinned presentation prevented her from working in black roles, and her features prevented her from working in white roles.

Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1903, Washington was the second of five children born to her mother, Harriet Walker Ward, a former dancer and her father, Robert T. Washington, a postal worker.   When Fredi was eleven years old, her mother died and as the eldest daughter in the family, she helped raise her younger siblings, Isabel, Rosebud and Robert.  After her mother’s death and her father remarried, Fredi was sent to the St. Elizabeth’s Convent School for colored girls in Cornwells Heights, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  At the age of 16, she moved to New York City to live with a grandmother and aunt, and having taken an interest in acting, she studied at the Christophe School of Languages and the Egri School of Dramatic Writing.

Washington appeared in “stage productions as “Run, Little Chillun,” “Great Day,” “Singing the Blues,” “Mamba’s Daughters,” “Lysistrata” and “A Long Way From Home” (an all-black production of Gorky’s “Lower Depths”). Her film work included roles in “The Emperor Jones,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Drums in the Night” and “One Mile From Heaven.

In addition to her acting, Washington was also an activist. In 1937, Washington was an active writer People’s Voice, a newspaper for African Americans founded by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a Baptist minister and politician in New York City. She was outspoken about racism faced by African Americans. She worked closely with Walter White, then president of the NAACP, to address pressing issues facing black people in America. Her experiences in the film industry and theatre led her to become a civil rights activist. Together with Noble Sissle, W. C. Handy and Dick Campbell, in 1937 Washington was a founding member with Alan Corelli of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG) in New York “which lobbied for better conditions, pay and treatment for black actors.

Washington married twice.  Her first “marriage to Lawrence Brown, a trombonist in the Duke Ellington Orchestra, ended in divorce. Her second husband, Dr. Anthony H. Bell, died in the early 1980’s.  After suffering several strokes, Washington died from pneumonia, which developed after a stroke,   in 1994, in Stamford, Connecticut.  She was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975, and honored with a U.S. Postal Service stamp in the Vintage Black Cinema series of 2008.  Washington was survived by her sisters and brother when she died.