With her fair skin and green eyes, singer and actress Fredericka Carolyn “Fredi” Washington could have passed for white. Actually, in the 1934 film, “Imitation of Life”, Washington plays the role of Peola, a light-skinned young African-American woman who chooses to pass as white in order to escape racial discrimination.
But in real life, Washington never turned her back on her African-American heritage in the midst of segregation, and this would hurt her career in Hollywood. In fact, the only time Washington passed for white was to buy snacks from whites-only ice cream parlors that refused to serve her bandmates because of the color of their skin.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, in 1903, Washington was the daughter of a postal worker and a dancer. She moved to Harlem with her family during the Great Migration. In her teens, she joined singer Josephine Baker’s cabaret dance group, the “Happy Honeysuckles” and traveled all over the world including Europe working as a dancer. She then joined the Harlem Renaissance, the 20th-century movement that elevated black culture and image.
Washington also became a chorus girl and an actress, appearing in stage productions in New York. During this period, she met jazz icon Duke Ellington and joined his band, traveling with them throughout the South to perform.
Hollywood at the time gave only stereotypical roles to Black people but Washington was able to defeat that when she landed the role of Peola in “Imitation of Life”. Described as one of the most important films ever made about race, the film was a hit in the Black community and was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. But her role in that 1934 film cut short her career in Hollywood.
Being one who wouldn’t shun her race no matter how light her skin was, she found it hard to get roles. Due to her light skin, Hollywood couldn’t cast her as a maid. And since white Hollywood declined to cast Black women in romantic roles, she couldn’t get leading roles opposite a white leading man. White Hollywood expected people to play down their ethnic origins to get roles. As such, several actresses passed for white in order to be accepted. All in all, refusing to deny her Black heritage hurt Washington’s chances at Hollywood.
“Early in my career, it was suggested that I might get further by passing as French or something exotic. But to pass, for economic or other advantages, would have meant that I swallowed, whole hog, the idea of Black inferiority,” she told the Chicago Defender in 1945.
Washington’s last major film role was in 1937 in “One Mile from Heaven”, where she plays an African-American woman raising a white child that had been abandoned. That same year, she helped found what was later the Negro Actors Guild of America, a group that fought for better working conditions for Black actors. She also wrote theatrical reviews for Black newspapers and worked as a casting consultant for films such as Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess.
Before her death in 1994, Washington became an activist and a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), fighting for equal rights.
The talented singer, dancer and actress once said: “I am an American citizen and by God, we all have inalienable rights and whenever and wherever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight…and I fight.”