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Fredi Washington (23 December 1903 – 28 June 1994) was an active African-American theater and film actress of American nationality, during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance (decades 1920 and 1930). It is perhaps best known for her role as the young mulatto “Peola” in the film of 1934 Imitation of Life. His last film role was in One Mile from Heaven (1937), after which left Hollywood to settle in New York and work in the theater and in the field of civil rights.
Her full name was Fredericka Carolyn Washington, and she was born in Savannah, Georgia, with her parents Robert T. Washington, a postal worker, and Harriet Walker Ward, a former dancer. Both had African-American and European origins. Fredi was the second of five children, and her mother died when she was 11. As the oldest of the girls, she helped raise her younger siblings, Isabel, Rosebud and Robert, to assist her grandmother. In addition, after the death of her mother, Fredi was sent to St. Elizabeth’s Convent School, a center for African-American girls in Cornwells Heights, near Philadelphia, and her father, Robert T. Washington, remarried, his wife passing away when he was pregnant. Later he married again, having four children this time, with which Fredi had a total of eight siblings. While Fredi was studying in Philadelphia, his family moved to Harlem, New York, during the course of the Great Black Migration, in search of work and opportunities in the industrial North. In that city, Fredi graduated from Julia Richman High School.
The artistic career of Washington began in 1921, when he got the opportunity to work as a showgirl in the musical Shuffle Along, represented on the Broadway circuit. In addition, she was hired by Josephine Baker to be part of the cabaret group “Happy Honeysuckles.” Baker made friends with her and was her mentor, which made her, along with her talent, be discovered by producer Lee Shubert, being recommended in 1926 to work on Broadway with Paul Robeson in “Black Boy.” Become a popular dancer, traveled abroad with Al Moiret, being the couple especially known in London.
Fredi Washington dedicated himself to acting in the late 1920s. His first film was Black and Tan (1929). He also had a small role in The Emperor Jones (1933), starring Paul Robeson and based on the work of Eugene O’Neill. But her best-known role came in the 1934 film Imitation of Life, in which she was a young mulatto woman who chose to pass as a white woman to obtain greater opportunities in a society with legal and social racial discrimination. The paper was perfect for her, but it caused her to be pigeonholed.Imitation of Life was nominated for an Oscar for the best film, although she was not the winner.
Washington also worked on the 1939 film Mamba’s Daughters, performing alongside popular singer Ethel Waters.
In an effort to help other black actors get better opportunities, she founded the Negro Actors Guild in 1937; the mission of the organization included lecturing against stereotypes and supporting a broader type of roles. Washington was the first executive secretary of the organization.
Along with Bill Robinson he starred in Fox’s production One Mile from Heaven (1937). Claire Trevor and Sally Blane also performed on the tape.
Despite the positive reviews, Washington found it difficult to find work in the Hollywood of the 1930s and 1940s, in which black actresses were expected to have dark skin and were usually pigeonholed as maids. In addition, the directors were concerned with choosing a black actress, even if she had fair skin, to play a romantic role with a white actor: since the code in use at the time prohibited racial mixing, Hollywood did not offer her romantic roles. ] A modern critic explained that Fredi Washington was “too pretty and too dark to be a maid, but too clear to work in black cast films.”
She also tried to find work on the radio, where black artists used to act as band musicians or as collaborators of comic couples. Washington landed an important radio dramatic role in a 1943 tribute to black women, “Heroines in Bronze”, produced by the National Urban League. But at that time there were few dramatic programs of a regular nature with black protagonists.
Washington was also a theater writer. She was editor of People’s Voice, a newspaper for African-Americans founded by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., a New York Baptist minister and politician. For a time he was the husband of her sister, Isabel Washington, and the publication was published between 1942 and 1948. Washington worked with Walter Francis White, then president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to press about the problems faced by the black population of the United States. Her theatrical and cinematographic experience led her to be a civil and political rights activist. Along with Noble Sissle, W. C. Handy and Dick Campbell, in 1937 Washington was one of the founding members of the Black Actors Guild of America (NAG) in New York.
In 1953, she was consultant for the cast of the film Carmen Jones, starring Dorothy Dandridge, another pioneer African-American actress. He also advised on the cast of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess, performed on Broadway in 1952, and shot in 1959.
Washington had a relationship with Duke Ellington but, seeing that he was not going to get married, he started another relationship, and finally married Lawrence Brown, trombonist in the Ellington jazz orchestra. The couple ended up divorcing.
Later Washington married Anthony H. Bell, a dentist. Bell died in the 1980s, and Fredi Washington died after a series of strokes in 1994 in Stamford, at 90 years of age. According to his sister Isabel, Fredi never had children. She was buried in the Fairfield Memorial Park Cemetery in Stamford.
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