Fredericka Washington was a Black actress and performer whose light skin and green eyes had a shocking impact on her life.
She Celebrated Her Black Heritage
In the early 1930s, Washington toured the South with Duke Ellington and his band. Everywhere they went, they faced segregation and prejudice. However, because of her fair complexion, Washington could slip into ice cream parlors that only allowed white customers and purchase sweet treats for the rest of the band. But this was as far as she went.
Unlike other actors in Hollywood, Washington never used her “passing” appearance to climb the ladder of success. Though rejecting her race and culture may have ensured her career, she chose to celebrate her Black heritage instead. As a result, her journey into the acting world was treacherous, especially after she came away with a bittersweet victory.
Hollywood Failed Her
Despite the pitiful opportunities for Black actors in Hollywood, Fredericka Washington was able to land a breakout role in a film that was actually made for white audiences, Imitation of Life. The film traversed the subject of “passing,” and even more surprisingly, the Black characters were just as important to the story as the white characters.
Sadly, after Washington’s role in Imitation of Life, she still struggled to find work. At the time, Hollywood simply didn’t cast Black women as romantic leads, and because her skin was so light, she also couldn’t land stereotypical Black roles. Three years later, her film career was already over. However, she never stopped advocating for better opportunities for Black actors.
In a 1945 conversation with the Chicago Defender, Fredericka Washington elaborated on why she refused to “pass”: “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.”