Fredi Washington: Imitation of a life well-served

AJC Sepia Black History Month


Fredricka “Fredi” Washington was an actress whose characters in film and actions off-screen contributed to the indelible impact of black entertainment during the Harlem Renaissance.

A Savannah native, Washington was born in 1903, later moving up North as a child following the death of her mother. After being hired by Josephine Baker, she appeared in her first cabaret show, “Happy Honeysuckles,” at age 16.

Washington’s celebrity is attached to the cultural movement that took place in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, and unlike most other black performers, she was distinctively identified as the “light-skin” actress with green eyes, drawing much attention for her unique look.

After years of performing, Washington didn’t land her most memorable role until her 30s. In 1934, she appeared in “Imitation of Life” as Peola, a black woman who passes for white. Washington’s light skin tone and green eyes made her a realistic fit for the role, leading some fans to falsely believe that — like Peola — she was anti-black.

But, outside of the film, the actress had no interest in shunning her heritage as a black woman.

Washington was among the founding members of the Negro Actor’s Guild in 1936. The organization was created to provide opportunities for African-American entertainers during a time when they struggled to find work. The guild eventually dissolved in the 1980s.

Following “Imitation of Life,” Washington went on to act in films such as “Ouanga” (1936) and “One Mile From Heaven” (1937). Even when she was not acting, she continued to showcase the work of other black artists as the entertainment editor for “The People’s Voice,” an African-American publication in New York. The newspaper was founded by Washington’s brother-in-law, New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., in 1942.

Washington was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975. She died from pneumonia in 1994 at age 90, and was posthumously honored with a U.S. Postal Service stamp in 2008.

Celebrate Black History Month

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Living

Catching up with former V-103/WAOK’s Mo Ivory after her city council run
Catching up with former V-103/WAOK’s Mo Ivory after her city council run

CREDIT: Mo Ivory Posted Friday, November 24, 2017 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog Former V-103/WAOK host and attorney Mo Ivory wasn’t able to unseat an entrenched, well-respected Atlanta City Council member earlier this month but drew a respectable 37 percent of the vote. In...
New book helps Georgia genealogists research military commissions
New book helps Georgia genealogists research military commissions

A new sourcebook for Georgia genealogical research has just been published by Paul K. Graham, most noted for his Georgia Land Lottery books. “Georgia Military Commissions, 1798 to 1818” was created from books and materials found at the Georgia Archives and covers officers of various ranks and their units. Almost 10,000 men are listed, including...
As 6-year-old battles brain tumor, many help give him early Christmas
As 6-year-old battles brain tumor, many help give him early Christmas

Six-year-old Brantley Dobbs of Hiram loves superheroes, he loves his sister Lucy and he loves Christmas. About a year and a half ago, Brantley was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG). Doctors thought Christmas 2016 might be his last. Now that he’s come this close to Christmas 2017, his parents...
Black Friday 2017: Don’t wait for Small Business Saturday to shop local
Black Friday 2017: Don’t wait for Small Business Saturday to shop local
Consumer spending has increased this holiday season with shoppers spending 3 to 9 percent more each week during the first two weeks of November compared to the same time period last year. Much of that shopping is happening online where Thanksgiving Day sales tracked a growth of 16.8 percent over last year, according to Adobe Analytics. The...
Cherish your loved ones, live with no regrets
Cherish your loved ones, live with no regrets

I barely turn off the car engine and I hear the loud barks echoing from inside the house. As I come in, the usual ritual starts: Our miniature Schnauzer jumps up and down, crying and wagging her tail, showing the extent of her love and devotion. No, I haven’t been gone for weeks or even days. My trip to the grocery store took less than an hour...
More Stories