The Body House

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Fredericka “Fredi” Washington Featured – #54 October/2022 Body House Chronicles

 

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In this month’s Body House Chronicles we have the beautiful and brave Fredericka ‘Fredi’ Washington.

Nicknamed “The Dark Duse of Hollywood”

Early Life & Death

Fredi was born Fredericka Carolyn Washington on December 23, 1903 in Savannah, GA. She passed on June 28, 1994 at the age 90. She died from pneumonia following a series of strokes at St. Joseph Medical Center in Stamford, Connecticut.

Washington was an American stage and film actress, civil rights activist, performer, and writer.

Fredi’s parents were Robert T. Washington, a postal worker and Harriet ‘Hattie’ Washington who was a dancer. Both of her parents were of European and African American descent. 

Fredi was the second of five children. Her mother died when Fredi was just 11 years old which meant she was thrust into the position of caretaker for her siblings. As the oldest girl in her family, She often shared parental type duties with her grandmother.

 

After their mother’s death, Fredi and her sister Isabel were sent to the St. Elizabeth’s Convent School for Colored Girls in Cornwells Heights, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was a devout Catholic for the rest of her life.

Her father eventually remarried, but his second wife died while pregnant with the couple’s first child.

He married a third time and had four additional children, giving the family a total of nine children.

 

While still in school in Philadelphia, Fredi’s family moved north to Harlem, New York during the “Great Migration.” Later, Washington graduated from Julia Richman High School in New York City.

 

 

Career & Rising To Stardom 

Although, Fredi Washington was of (part) African American descent she had very light skin.

Fredi was very proud of her African-American heritage and was one of the first people of color to gain recognition for film and stage work in the 1920s and 1930s.

 

Although she was know as a tremendously talented actress, her fair skin and green eyes often were impediments to gaining good acting roles.  

Washington was active during the Harlem Renaissance years of the 1920s–1930s,

Her best known role was as Peola in the 1934 film version of Imitation of Life, starring Claudette Colbert.

{Colbert was featured in a recent Body House Chronicles. Find the lovely Claudette here…}

Fredi played a young light-skinned woman who decides to pass as white.

 

The 1920s and 30s in America were glorious and difficult times. Fredi Washington found she was unable to develop a real career as a serious black actress. She was fiercely proud of her heritage and refused to ‘pass’ as white to gain roles. 

These circumstances push her life in a certain direction. Washington became an important figure in the activist community and a journalist in the field of black performers’ rights and elsewhere.

Her last Hollywood film role was in One Mile from Heaven (1937). After that she returned to New York to work in theatre and civil rights activism.

 

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Fredi Washington’s Top Movies

 

IMITATION OF LIFE  {1934}

 

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This is a beautiful clip from Imitation of Life with Fredi Washington, Louise Beavers who plays her mother and Claudette Colbert.

 

 

One Mile From Heaven {1937}

 

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I could’t find a clip with Fredi Washington in it from One Mile From Heaven but this is a get bit by Bill Robinson. Take a Look…

 

 

The Loves of Fredi Washington

 

LAURENCE BROWN & DUKE ELLINGTON

 

In 1933, Washington married Lawrence Brown who was the trombonist in Duke Ellington’s jazz orchestra. However, she married him after she’d had an affair with Duke Ellington who was married at the time.

It was thought that marriage to Brown was more of a rebound marriage as Fredi Washington was crazy about Ellington. Although Fredi was married to Laurence for over 20 years.

According to her sister Isabel, who was also an actress, the love of Fredi’s life was the married Duke Ellington.

Fredi was drawn to Ellington’s looks and intelligence, as well as, his talent and sophistication. Fredi had a discreet and passionate affair with him. Her hopes that he would leave his wife never materialized (as they so rarely do).

 

I may have been a natural choice for Fredi to then become attracted to the charismatic Laurence Brown, who was a trombonist in the Duke Ellington orchestra.

Laurence, born in 1908 in Kansas, joined the Duke Ellington orchestra in 1932.

On August 9, 1933, Laurence married Fredi Washington in Manhattan, New York. Laurence and Fredi were married until their divorce in 1951.

DUKE ELLINGTON

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LAWRENCE BROWN

 

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Hugh Anthony Bell

Next, Fredi Washington married a Stamford dentist, Hugh Anthony Bell, and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut.

Hugh Anthony Bell (known as “Anthony”) was a dentist who lived in Stamford, Connecticut.

They stayed together until his death on October 3, 1970 in Stamford, Connecticut.

 

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After Hollywood

 

Washington was also a theatre writer. She was the Entertainment Editor for The People’s Voice, a weekly newspaper for African Americans founded by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Powell jr. was a Baptist minister and politician in the Harlem district of New York City.

For a time (about 12 years) he was married to her Fredi Washington’s sister Isabel.

The People’s Voice was published weekly from 1942 to 1948.  

Washington was outspoken about racism and prejudice during this time in America.

She also worked closely with Walter White, then president of the NAACP, to address pressing issues facing black people in America.

Her experiences in the film industry and theatre led her to become a civil rights activist.

Fredi was one of the founding members, along with Noble Sissle, W.C. Handy, Alan Corelli and Dick Campbell, in 1937  of the Negro Actors Guild of America (NAG) in New York.

 

QUOTES BY FREDI WASHINGTON

 

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