Fredi Washington was born Fredericka Washington in Savannah, Georgia in 1903. Her mother died when she was 11, and she spent her teen years as a surrogate mother to her four younger siblings. In her teens she began dancing in stage productions. She also had some acting roles, but there were few parts for her, because she had the odd distinction of being a black African American woman with extremely light skin. So despite being a very talented actress, and being quite beautiful, she did little acting throughout the 1920s, and she mostly danced. It is said that the major studios offered her starring roles, but only on the condition that she "pass for white", which she surely could have done. It is also said that when she appeared as a black woman, she suffered prejudice from white racists but also from some blacks who were angry that she wasn't "black" enough! In 1933 she was given a small but important part in The Emperor Jones, opposite Paul Robeson, and she had a pretty torrid love scene with Robeson. It is said that the studio saw the initial footage and panicked, thinking the public would think they were viewing an interracial love scene, and they ordered Washington to wear make-up to substantially darken her skin, so she would look "black" to audiences! Her most important film role came in 1934 when she played Louise Beavers' daughter, Peola, in Imitation of Life. She played the beautiful young daughter of a black maid who had light enough skin that she could "pass for white", and once again Washington had to wear much make-up so she could "pass for black"! At this point, even though she was clearly very talented, the only parts open to Washington was as either half-white/half black women, or as black women trying to "pass" as white, and after starring in One Mile From Heaven in 1937, about a black women who has a "white child", Washington appeared in no more movies. She was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America that same year, and its goal was to create better professional opportunities for black actors. She became a theater editor and columnist for many years, and was a casting consultant for the studios on some of the important major studio black films of the 1940s and 1950s. In her later years she devoted herself mostly to civil rights pursuits, and she passed away in 1994 at the age of 90. One wonders what sort of career this exceptionally talented and intelligent actress might have had had she not been denied so many parts due to a most unusual sort of racial prejudice!
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