Known for her acting and activism, Fredricka “Fredi” Carolyn Washington was born on December 23, 1903 to parents, both of African American and European ancestry. She had fair skin and green eyes and was “white passing”, but she proudly claimed she was Black. She was born in Savannah, Georgia and had eight siblings.
Once she was 16, Fredi moved to New York City, and this is where she began acting. The Harlem Renaissance was picking up pace during this time, and Fredi found herself in the middle of all of it. 1921 was when she joined the Broadway show, Shuffle Along. This was the first Broadway show to be created, performed, and produced by African Americans, as well as the first Black musical to play in white theaters. Fredi danced throughout the 20s and even went to Europe to dance during this time.
Fredi Washington is best known for her role in the film Imitation of Life (1934). Here she plays “Peola”, a young light-skinned Black woman, who chooses to “pass as white” and reject her Black mother. The movie addresses racial identity, the American dream, interracial and mother and daughter relationships. The stories of both the Black and White characters were equally important, unlike the films for White audiences that came before it. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards. When Fredi was cast, she negotiated her pay and denied a four year contract, as she knew her worth and what she actually wanted to commit to – she remained in charge of her career. After this movie, Fredi was accused of denying her Black heritage, like the character she played. However, this was not the case as she proudly claimed to be Black because she did not want to contribute to the belief in the superiority or inferiority of any race.
This choice did not make her life easier, especially in the realm of acting. Hollywood wouldn’t give her roles stereotypically given to White or Black actresses, but she believed she was doing what was right. Eventually, in 1937 she co-founded the Negro Actors Guild of America and also worked with NAACP. Washington pointed out and criticized the poor treatment of African American performers and artists. In 1943, Washington joined the magazine People’s Voice, further advocating the equal treatment of Black people. Fredi Washington passed away June 28, 1994, but her legacy and love for the arts and civil rights lives on.
Project RACE Teens, President
Picture credit: https://www.messynessychic.com/2022/02/15/she-was-the-black-actress-who-refused-to-pass/