Fredi Washington papers, 1925-1979
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Brief Description:

The papers of actress, dancer, and activist Fredi Washington measure 2.14 linear feet. The collection, dating from 1925-1979, documents her stage and film career, her writings on theater, and her professional work in supporting African American actors and actresses. It contains correspondence, photographs, news clippings, honors and awards, scripts, and a scrapbook.

Approximately one hundred items of correspondence from 1933 to 1979 are contained in the collection. The correspondence includes letters (six of which are outgoing), telegrams, cards, notes, and memoranda. The arrangement is chronological except for the order of congratulatory telegrams received during the performance of Lysistrata (1946) and How Long Till Summer (1949). These are organized alphabetically by sender within their respective folders.

Most of the correspondents are represented by a single item, and no one is represented by more than four items. The bulk of the correspondence is from the 1940s; there are no letters during the 1960s. Letters from the mid-1930s include several items of fan mail. Also, some writers of this period expressed their views on passing for white as an option for African Americans; Fredi Washington's role as Peola Johnson in the film Imitation of Life generated interest on the subject of passing. Other letters, however, voiced Washington's strong opinion on discrimination in the theater and stereotypes in casting. Still other correspondence pertained to honors bestowed upon the actress, and most letters dating from the 1970s are in this latter category.

Notable correspondents include Countee Cullen, Harlem Renaissance luminary and playwright; Ossie Davis, actor; Owen Dodson, writer; Duke Ellington, composer and band leader; Mary Garden, operatic star; Dorothy Heyward, playwright; Edith Isaacs, theater historian; Isabel Powell (Mrs. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.), sister of Washington and an actress prior to her marriage; and Walter White, author and civic activist.

Within this collection, items not relating to correspondence include an important group of clippings dating from 1937 to 1979. These clippings have a dual interest because they contain reviews of the various productions in which the actress appeared, as well as feature articles on some of her fellow performers. Washington was cast in dramas and musicals that included notables such as Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson, and J. Rosamond Johnson. Etta Moten starred in one of the comedies in which Washington had a part, and Noble Sissle, Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington, and other show business greats were among the stars whose paths also crossed Fredi Washington's. The clippings provide information about many of these contacts.

On various occasions, one of the performers with whom the actress had similar interests was J. Rosamond Johnson. In 1941 he marked fifty years in the business and had gained recognition as a composer, author, vaudeville and musical comedy star, director, producer, and actor. Many people associate the Johnson brothers with "Lift Every Voice and Sing;" however, a December 19, 1939, clipping from the Detroit News, written by George W. Stark under the byline "We Old Timers," provides an informative account of Johnson's theatrical career. Fredi and Johnson had parts in Mamba's Daughters. When picketing the theater where the play was being presented threatened the jobs of the cast, including the Black performers working there, he and Fredi appealed to the leaders of the movement and avoided further confrontation. Eleanor Roosevelt's column, "My Day," in the Washington, D.C. News for January 25, 1940, expressed the First Lady's disapproval of crossing picket lines. This article is included in the scrapbook in Box 3.

The columns that Washington wrote for the People's Voice are available in the clippings, and some of them, written under "Headlines-Footlights" in 1943 and 1944, have been preserved. Her purpose in writing was "to provoke progressive thought, to help people of the theater…and to criticize those of us who need it." Her columns centered on Black performers in the legitimate theater, concert, screen, radio, and behind-the-scenes organizations.

A substantial number of the clippings are reviews and criticisms of Washington's performances. Typical of the complimentary reviews that followed her performances was one from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for November 7, 1939, in which Calvin McPherson wrote that "Fredi Washington, the grown up Lissa, is perhaps the most talented Negro actress in the business."

Two categories of programs, spanning approximately thirty years but clustering in the 1940s, are also included in the general arrangement. The first group is for performances in which Washington appeared; the second is for collected programs. Two of the earliest programs date from the mid-1920s. One is a souvenir program from Club Alabam, where Washington was a dancer; the other is for a 1926 production of Black Boy at the Stamford Theater. This three-act play starred Paul Robeson opposite Washington. Several Robeson items are included in this collection.

Other programs of interest include one for a 1943 Marian Anderson concert (it bears the autograph of the famed contralto), and another for one of Duke Ellington’s concerts contains penciled comments by Washington; both performances were held at Carnegie Hall. Her first husband, trombonist Lawrence Brown, had been a member of Ellington's orchestra for fourteen years when the group played Carnegie Hall in 1946.

The collection contains approximately twenty black and white photos. These pictures document Washington's activities and include two dating from the mid-1920s (the earliest in this collection) of her with Al Moiret, her partner of the ballroom dance team Moiret and Fredi.

The next decade in the actress's career is represented by photographs from the 1930s of releases for Imitation of Life. Photos from the 1940s show Washington at an art exhibit, in the uniform of the Women's Voluntary Service during World War II, and at a banquet with members of the Negro Actors Guild. Among the individual photos of Washington are two undated ones by Carl Van Vechten. In addition, this collection contains several other undated photos, both group and individual, as well as two of Washington’s sister, Isabel.

Also included in the acquisition are seven scripts, two of which are for the Countee Cullen/Arna Bontemps 1946 musical St Louis Woman. The scripts generally seem to be among those submitted to the actress for her consideration, including one written by Dorothy Heyward about Denmark Vesey’s rebellion and called "Set My People Free," and another by Paul Peters about the Nat Turner insurrection. Items in the collection indicate that Robeson was being considered for the lead in Heyward’s play. Such scripts were especially of interest to Washington because of her objection to any role that depicted African Americans as subservient or comic rather than as heroes. However, St. Louis Woman was produced, and Washington and Walter White were among those who believed that the musical perpetuated an undesirable portrayal of Blacks.

Although materials dating from the 1960s are generally sparse in this collection, the Negro Actors Guild yearbook for 1961 is an interesting and important item from that period. Among the deceased, it lists the organization's historian, Harold Jackman, and Muriel Rahn, a member of the executive board. Washington was a founding member of the Guild and its first executive secretary. Noble Sissle, of Sissle and Blake, was its first president, and he served in that capacity for twenty years.

Notable items from the 1970s pertain to honors conferred on Washington or her acquaintances. One of the leaflets lists the first group to be elected to the Theater Hall of Fame in 1972. Two of the 122 persons so honored were special to Washington; they were Paul Robeson and Bert Williams. Other items pertain to Washington's induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975 and include an invitation to a dinner dance, brochures for the 1974 and 1975 awards named in honor of Oscar Micheaux, and a small group of items relating to Washington's nomination for the CIRCA-Life Achievement Award in 1979. The Micheaux Award was conferred in Oakland, California, and the CIRCA Award was presented in Detroit, Michigan.

The scrapbook contains clippings, letters, programs, announcements, and photographs. The clippings are predominantly from newspapers and are reviews of the files and stage plays in which Fredi appeared. The items from the 1920s mostly pertain to her Club Alabam period and to the cabaret dance duo that she and Al Moiret formed. There are also items from both the European and American press. Publicity and reviews for appearances of the team in Paris, Dieppe, Hamburg, and Philadelphia comprise a majority of the items from this decade.

The bulk of the scrapbook items are from the 1930s. Especially interesting are those for Sweet Chariot (based on Marcus Garvey’s "back-to-Africa" movement), Imitation of Life, and Mamba's Daughters, the latter of which debuted in 1940 and was seen by Eleanor Roosevelt at a benefit performance. For her role in Mamba's Daughters, George Jean Nathan named Fredi Washington "best young colored dramatic actress."

Held at:
Amistad Research Center
6823 Saint Charles Avenue
Tilton Hall, Tulane University
New Orleans, LA 70118
Phone: (504) 862-3222
Fax: (504) 862-8961
Email: research [at] amistadresearchcenter.org
Created by: Washington, Fredi (1903-1994)
Volume: 2.14 Linear Feet
Acquired: 06/30/1975. Original donation received in 1975, accruals received in 1979.
Arrangement: This collection was acquired as a gift in three deposits from Fredi Washington. The two acquired in 1975 have been interfiled in a single arrangement. The thirteen items comprising the 1979 addition are filed as one unit in Box 2, Folder 13.
Biographical Note for Washington, Fredi (1903-1994) :

Fredi Washington was an African American actress, dancer, and activist known for her stage and screen rolls during the 1920-1940s. Her activism focused on equality for African Americans in the stage and film industries.

Fredi Washington, born Fredericka Carolyn Washington in Savannah, Georgia, on December 23, 1903, was one of nine children of Robert T. and Harriet Walker Ward Washington. Her sister, Isabel, also became an actress. Fredi and Isabel's mother died when they were young, and both were sent to school at St. Elizabeth's Convent in Cornwell Heights, Pennsylvania. Fredi moved to Harlem, New York, in 1919 to live with her grandmother. She left school and soon entered show business. She began her career in the early 1920s as a chorus dancer in Nobble Sissle and Eubie Blake's Shuffle Along. She adopted the stage name Edith Warren in 1926 when she acted in the lead role opposite Paul Robeson in Black Boy.

Washington's stage career was interrupted when she became half of the dance team Fredi and Moiret, along with Al Moiret, and toured throughout Europe. Upon returning to the United States in 1928, her musical stage career continued with roles in Sweet Chariot (1930), Singin' the Blues (1931), and Run, Little Chillun (1933).

Washington's film career began in 1929 with an appearance in Duke Ellington's short sound feature, Black and Tan Fantasy. Washington retired from her acting career following her marriage to Lawrence Brown, a trombonist in Ellington's orchestra, in July 1933. However, her retirement lasted less than a year when she appeared with Paul Robeson in Emperor Jones later that year. Other film roles included those in Drums in the Jungle (1933), Mills Blue Rhythm Band (1934), Ouanga (1936), and One Mile from Heaven (1937). Her best known role was that of Peola Johnson in Imitation of Life (1934). Washington's Caucasian features mirrored those of Peola, leading some to speculate that Washington, like her film character, passed for white during her life. Theater roles included Mamba's Daughter (1939), Lysistrata (1946), A Long Way from Home (1948), and How Long till Summer (1949).

Throughout her career, Washington was also active in efforts to end discrimination in the film and theater industries. Her political activism began in the 1930s, when she participated in boycotts and demonstrations organized by her brother-in-law, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who had married her sister Isabel. Washington contributed a weekly column devoted to theater news to Powell's newspaper, The People's Voice. She also cofounded the Negro Actors Guild and was active in the Joint Actors Equity-Theater League Committee. Later, she worked with the Cultural Division of the National Negro Congress and the Committee for the Negro in the Arts.

Washington's first marriage to Lawrence Brown ended in 1948, and in 1952, she married Hugh Anthony Bell, a Connecticut dentist. Their marriage lasted until his death in 1970. Upon marrying Bell, Washington retired permanently from show business. She died of pneumonia following a stroke in Stamford, Connecticut, on June 28, 1994.

Access Restrictions: This collection is open for research.
Subject Index
African American actresses
African American dancers
African American journalists
Passing (Identity) in motion pictures
Powell, Isabel Washington, 1908-
Robeson, Paul, 1898-1976
Washington, Fredi, 1903-1994
Languages of Materials
English [eng]
Rights/Use Restrictions: Copyright to these papers has not been assigned to the Amistad Research Center. It is the responsibility of an author to secure permission for publication from the holder of the copyright to any material contained in this collection.
Acquisition Notes: Fredi Washington Bell  Gift
Other Formats: Microfilm copies available for use. For more information please see http://www.amistadresearchcenter.org/pdfs/Archon/Fredi_Washington_Papers_-_Microfilm_Guide.pdf.
Related Materials: The Amistad Research Center also houses the papers of Washington's sister, Isabel Washington Powell.
PreferredCitation: Fredi Washington papers, Amistad Research Center, New Orleans, LA