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Washington, Fredi (1903-1994) | Amistad Research Center

Name: Washington, Fredi (1903-1994)
Fuller Form: Fredi Washington Bell

Historical Note:

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.

Sources: Gates, Henry Louis Jr and Evelyn Brooks-Higginbothom. African American National Biography. Vol. 8 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008). pp. 130-131.
Note Author: Christopher Harter

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