Born in Savannah, Georgia, in the early 1900s, sisters Fredi and Isabel Washington went on to famed stage, film, and musical careers in New York City during the 1920s through the 1940s. As two of the nine children born to Robert T. and Harriet Walker Ward Washington, Fredi and Isabel attended school at St. Elizabeth’s Convent in Pennsylvania following the death of their mother. Fredi eventually moved to Harlem to live with her grandmother and was followed by Isabel, where both began show business careers that would bring them to the forefront of New York City nightlife and to audiences beyond. Both would eventually retire from the entertainment industry and devote themselves to bettering the lives of African Americans.
The Amistad Research Center is proud to house the papers of both women, which provide glimpses into the lives of each, African Americans on stage and in film, and the intersection of entertainment and civil rights.The finding aids to the Fredi Washington Papers and the Isabel Washington Powell Papers were recently added to the Center’s online finding aid database. Both contain correspondence, photographs, news clippings, as well as other documents. The Fredi Washington Papers also contain a number of materials related to fellow actor Paul Robeson, with whom she started in stage and film productions. Likewise, the Isabel Washington Powell Papers also contain information about Adam Clayton Powell Jr, to whom she was married for twelve years.
Fredi Washington began her career in the early 1920s as a chorus dancer in Nobble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along. She toured Europe with Al Moiret as part of the dance team Fredi and Moiret before returning to the United States in 1928. Her first film role was in Duke Ellington’s short sound feature, Black and Tan Fantasy. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, she starred in numerous films. However, her best known role was that of Peola Johnson in Imitation of Life (1934). Washington’s Caucasian features mirrored those of Peola, leading some to speculate that Washington, like her film character, passed for white during her life. However, Washington was a strong advocate of film rolls that did not demean African American actors and actresses. During her career, she was involved with a number of organizations that fought for the rights of African American entertainers.
Like her sister, Isabel Washington Powell starred in a number of stage performances during the 1920s and 1930s, including roles in ‘Harlem,” “Bamboola,” and “Singin’ the Blues.” Following her marriage to Adam Clayton Powell Jr in 1933, she left show business. Married to Powell Jr. for twelve years, she assisted him in his activist efforts. Following their divorce, she eventually worked as a school teacher and social services worker in the New York City school system.
Together, these two collections provide a fascinating look at African American society and entertainment during the early to mid 20th century, and highlight two outstanding women who contributed greatly to both.
Posted by Christopher Harter.
(Images from the Fredi Washington Papers and the Isabel Washington PowelPapers. May not be reproduced without permission.)