A Savannah native, Washington was born in 1903, later moving up North as a child following the death of her mother. After being hired by Josephine Baker, she appeared in her first cabaret show, “Happy Honeysuckles,” at age 16.
Washington’s celebrity is attached to the cultural movement that took place in Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s, and unlike most other black performers, she was distinctively identified as the “light-skin” actress with green eyes, drawing much attention for her unique look.
After years of performing, Washington didn’t land her most memorable role until her 30s. In 1934, she appeared in “Imitation of Life” as Peola, a black woman who passes for white. Washington’s light skin tone and green eyes made her a realistic fit for the role, leading some fans to falsely believe that — like Peola — she was anti-black.
But, outside of the film, the actress had no interest in shunning her heritage as a black woman.
Washington was among the founding members of the Negro Actor’s Guild in 1936. The organization was created to provide opportunities for African-American entertainers during a time when they struggled to find work. The guild eventually dissolved in the 1980s.
Following “Imitation of Life,” Washington went on to act in films such as “Ouanga” (1936) and “One Mile From Heaven” (1937). Even when she was not acting, she continued to showcase the work of other black artists as the entertainment editor for “The People’s Voice,” an African-American publication in New York. The newspaper was founded by Washington’s brother-in-law, New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., in 1942.
Washington was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975. She died from pneumonia in 1994 at age 90, and was posthumously honored with a U.S. Postal Service stamp in 2008.
Celebrate Black History Month
Throughout February, we'll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.
About the Author