This year, SCAD and Paula Wallace inducted five new women into the Savannah Women of Vision, a program that celebrates key female figures whose ideas, leadership and service have shaped the community of Savannah. This weekly column will attempt to share a little more of the stories behind each of the fifteen women whose gold portraits hang on either side of the Arnold Hall Theater.
At the 2018 Savannah Women of Vision Ceremony A’ndrea Wilson, a dramatic writing alumna, said that honoree Fredericka Washington “always knew…that owning your identity is how you transcend time and place to affect cultural and social change.”
Born in Savannah in December 1903 with fair skin, green eyes and wavy hair, Fredi stood out from the rest of her African-American family. During the Great Migration, the Washingtons moved to Philadelphia, where Fredi looked after her siblings after her mother died, and, after her father remarried, attended the St. Elizabeth Convent School.
When she was 16, she moved to Harlem and lived with her grandmother and aunt and worked as a bookkeeper at the W. C. Handy Black Swan Record Company. While she was working, Fredi heard about a casting call for the all-black Broadway musical “Shuffle Along” and began to work with a dance tutor to train for a role. She was cast as a chorus dancer and traveled with the troupe, which featured Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson, for a four year tour. She earned $35 weekly, enough to singlehandedly take care of her entire family.
Fredi returned to Manhattan and performed at Club Alabam, where producer Lee Shubert discovered her and recommended her for a leading theatre role opposite Paul Robeson in “Black Boy.”
After “Black Boy,” Fredi moved to Europe, frustrated with the few casting opportunities for black actresses. She became a part of a ballroom dance troupe who toured through France, Germany and England, where Fredi taught the 1920s dance craze, the Black Bottom, to the Prince of Wales.
After returning to America in 1928, she made her film debut in “Black and Tan Fantasy,” a musical short that co-starred Duke Ellington. A few years later, she appeared opposite Paul Robeson again in “The Emperor Jones.” During this time, films were strictly censored to ban interracial relationships on screen. Because of Fredi’s fair complexion, she was “dipped,” which meant she had to wear dark-toned make-up during every romantic scene.
In 1934, she landed her best-known role in John M. Stahl’s “Imitation of Life,” nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. She played Peola, a young light-skinned African American woman who attempts to pass for white to avoid discrimination. The film appeared among Time Magazine’s 2008 “25 Most Important Films on Race.”
Despite the significance of the film, many viewers accused Fredi of trying to deny her heritage in real life and she found she was often deemed too light-skinned for the few black roles in Hollywood. She refused several chances to pass as a white actress and, in a Chicago Defender article entitled “To Pass or Not to Pass?” published in 1945, she said, “No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black.”
Because of these experiences, Fredericka stopped acting in movies after “Imitation of Life” and focused on becoming a writer and a civil rights activist. She helped to found the Negro Actors Guild of American in 1937 and strived to expand opportunities for African American actors and actresses. She became active in the NAACP and lobbied for a larger black presence in the arts and for better lodging conditions for black performers.
She later served as the theatre editor and columnist for the “People’s Voice” newspaper and worked as a casting consultant for “Porgy and Bess,” “Carmen Jones” and “Cry the Beloved Country.” In 1975, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.
Fredi contracted Alzheimers and, following several strokes, died on June 28, 1994 at the age of 90 in Stanford, Connecticut.
In the 1945 Defender article, she said, “I am an American citizen and, by God, we all have inalienable rights and whenever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight…and I fight.”
By Elena Burnett.