When Duke Ellington and his band toured the segregated South in the early 1930s, they encountered racism wherever they went. A gorgeous black performer also traveled with the band—Frederika “Fredi” Washington. Lithe and light-skinned, she was pale enough to “pass” as white in the color-obsessed South, and during the tour she took advantage of her skin color to slip into whites-only ice cream parlors and buy ice cream for the entire band. “N--- er lover!” whites screamed when they realized they’d been hoodwinked.
Washington may have used her skin color to procure cool treats on the road, but she refused to use it for economic or social gain. During a time of harsh segregation and overwhelming bias against African-Americans, she embraced her heritage. And while other actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age like Merle Oberon (who was Anglo-Indian) and Rita Hayworth (who was Spanish-American) hid their features as the price of admission to white Hollywood, Washington refused to hide behind her light skin.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, Washington moved to Harlem along with her family during the Great Migration, when black families fled the Jim Crow South in search of new opportunities in Northern cities. The daughter of a postal worker and a dancer, Washington had green eyes and light skin that belied the era’s common expectations of what an African-American “looked like.”
Washington knew that regardless of her looks, the era’s construction of black race as belonging to anyone who had even a drop of black heritage meant she would always be considered African-American by white audiences…unless she simply “passed” as white.
Racial “passing” allowed black Americans to sidestep racism faced by black people and claim the privilege of whiteness in public spaces. The practice, writes historian Robert Fikes, Jr., was “seen by many African Americans as a way of outwitting the system of oppression and making laughable fools of those who countenanced notions of white racial purity and supremacy.” But it also alienated people from others of their culture. A black woman who passed might be considered white, but she ran the constant risk of losing her privilege once it was discovered she was really black—and of being shunned by black people once they learned she was claiming whiteness.
Instead of turning her back on her race, Washington reveled in it. She immersed herself in the growing Harlem Renaissance, during which her neighborhood turned into a cultural oasis and a hotbed of African-Americans artistic production. Already a talented singer and dancer, she became a chorus girl, then an actress, traveling to Europe and starring in stage productions in New York. She also performed with Duke Ellington’s band and had an affair with the married musician.
At the time, black actors had few opportunities in Hollywood. The majority of black people on film could be seen only in “race films” designed for all-black audiences. Those who did break in to movies for white audiences were relegated to subservient or stereotypical roles.
But Washington broke through that barrier in Imitation of Life—ironically, in a film that explored the practice of “passing” that she had declined to adopt in her own life. In 1934, she played the role of Peola, the daughter of a black housekeeper (Louise Beavers) whose life is closely intertwined with that of a white widow and her daughter. Peola turns her back on her mother, who dies a dramatic death brought on by her life of self-abnegation and sorrow over her daughter’s betrayal.
The movie, which starred Claudette Colbert as the white friend, dealt frankly with interracial identity, passing, and the similarities and differences between black and white women—themes that had never been thoroughly explored in mainstream Hollywood. And, unlike all films for white audiences that came before it, it essentially treated the stories of its black and white characters as equally important.
This was enormously significant to black audiences, who saw Peola’s struggle to accept herself as a poignant cry for equality. As historian Anna Everett writes, white audiences saw Peola’s story as a black person’s struggle to be white; black audiences, on the other hand, saw it as the rebellion of a black woman trying to gain the privileges only given to white people.
The film—and Washington—became an enormous hit within the black community, in part because of how it was marketed. As historian Miriam J. Petty writes in Stealing the Show: African American Performers and Audiences in 1930s Hollywood, both Washington and Beavers were heavily featured in an unprecedented special trailer that ran in segregated movie houses. By acknowledging black audiences—even to sell them something—Universal gave an implicit nod to a group of people who were not used to seeing any kind of representation on film, much less an emotional exploration of racial politics and “passing.”
“Black moviegoers watched, claimed, and interpreted these African Americans in ways that made the most of Imitation’s resonance with critical currents and tensions circulating within Black communities at the time,” Petty writes.
Ironically, though, Washington’s breakthrough role cut short her acting career. She became so identified with Peola that it was hard for her to get other roles. Since white Hollywood refused to cast black women in romantic roles, she couldn’t get leading roles; since her skin was so light many identified her as white, she couldn’t get more stereotypical roles as maids. She made her last movie appearance just three years after Imitation of Life.
Her career wasn’t done yet, though. In 1937, Washington helped found what would become the Negro Actors Guild of America, a group that advocated for less stereotypical roles and better working conditions for black actors. She also became a drama critic, writing theatrical reviews for African-American newspapers, and served as a casting consultant for films and theatrical productions that concerned race.
“Early in my career,” she told the Chicago Defender in 1945, “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.”