10 Pioneering Black Actors You’ve Never Heard Of

Let’s face it: Hollywood has never been
an equal opportunity employer. During the early years of silent film most
black roles were played by whites in blackface. However, these ten actors all worked during
Hollywood’s infancy and kicked down doors for black performers to follow. Many have sadly fallen into obscurity, which
is why we want to give them their due. 10. Lillian Randolph (1898-1980) Lillian Randolph is best known for her role
as Annie in the Christmas classic It’s a Wonderful Life. She only appears in three scenes, but she
makes the most of them, including delivering the line, “I been savin’ this money for
a divorce, if ever I got a husband!” Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, Randolph started
on local radio as a singer, then broke onto the national scene when she moved to Hollywood
in the 1930s and acted on radio and in movies, mostly uncredited. She’d appear in everything from Tom and
Jerry cartoons to radio programs The Great Gildersleeves and The Billie Burke Show. Later in her career she appeared in TV versions
of Amos ‘n’ Andy, Beulah, and other programs. Though she was criticized by the NAACP and
community activitists for the stereotypical roles she took, Randolph defended her right
to work as an actress. It also allowed her to mentor young actors
like Lena Horne on how to survive Hollywood. Randolph continued to do films and make television
appearances, including Sanford and Son, Roots, and various commercials, until her death in
1980. 9. Herb Jeffries (1913-2014) Dubbed “The Bronze Buckaroo,” singer Herb
Jeffries starred in a series of 1930s black westerns with titles like Harlem on the Prairie
(1937) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). When he noticed how much black audiences loved
white cowboy westerns, Jeffries realized a whole potential market was going untapped. As he told The Los Angeles Times in 1998,
“Little children of dark skin — not just Negroes, but Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, everybody
of color — had no heroes in the movies. I was so glad to give them something to identify
with.” Jeffries wasn’t originally supposed to star
in the movies, but he and producer Jed Buell couldn’t find an actor who could sing and
ride horses. As luck would have it Jeffries could do both,
thanks to summers at his grandfather’s dairy farm. Jeffries returned to music during the ’40s
when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, where he’d have a hit with his signature
song “Flamingo.” His work fell into obscurity until the 1990s,
when scenes from his films were included in Mario Peebles’ 1993 movie Posse. Jeffries continued to remain active in the
art community before passing away at the age of 100. 8. James Edwards (1918-1970) James Edwards’ big break came in 1949’s
Home of the Brave, where he was lauded for his sensitive portrayal of a black G.I. emotionally
crippled by racism and war. Director Stanley Kramer said that the star
was “an intelligent, cultivated actor with an excellent voice, and I was lucky to get
him.” Movie audiences apparently agreed, because
Edwards became a household name. According to biographer Pamela S. Deane, he
was especially celebrated in the black community, which was starved for authentic representations
on the silver screen. Unfortunately, Edwards’ rise to fame was
cut short by racism, McCarthyism, and poor choices. Career-wise, all the best roles for black
actors were cornered by Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte, but it didn’t help that
Edwards’ outspokenness also put him at odds with Hollywood. He criticized how the industry limited black
actors to stereotypical and subservient roles, and refused to publicly denounce leftist singer
and political activist Paul Robeson to the House Un-American Activities Commitee. He was also reputed to be an alcoholic, a
womanizer and an abuser. Despite his personal demons Edwards continued
to act, but his chance to become a leading man came and went with Home of the Brave. However, he built a steady resumé in film
and television as a character actor — including a small but memorable part in the 1962 movie
The Manchurian Candidate — before his untimely death in 1970. 7. Ernest Morrison (1912-1989) Child actor Ernest Morrison was a veteran
by the time he was a teenager, having appeared in 145 pictures under the name of Sunshine
Sammy. He starred opposite comic greats Fatty Arbuckle
and Harold Lloyd, but his greatest fame arrived in the Our Gang shorts produced by Hal Roach. As the oldest Our Gang cast-member Morrison
earned $10,000 a year, making him the highest paid black actor in Hollywood. He made 28 episodes from 1922 to 1928 before
he ditched Hollywood for New York’s vaudeville stages. After a few years, he returned and acted in
the Dead End Kids movies. By World War II, he performed in the South
Pacific as a singer-dancer-comedian, then left entertainment altogether to work as a
factory inspector at a Compton, California aerospace company. Morrison’s contributions to black entertainment
was largely forgotten, though by the 1970s he appeared on Good Times and The Jeffersons,
and at Our Gang reunions. Morrison died at the age of 75, two years
after was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. 6. Fredi Washington (1903-1995) Fredi Washington’s most notable role was
Peola, a young, light-skinned black woman who passes for white in the movie Imitation
of Life. The former dancer, who worked alongside Josephine
Baker, got the coveted role because she was one of a few light-skinned actors who could
handle the part. During contract negotiations the headstrong
actress refused to sign with the studio unless she was paid what she thought she was worth,
and her lawyer looked over the contract before she agreed to its conditions. She won her battles with the flustered studio
executives and was paid $500 a week for the part. Washington also pushed to make Peola more
authentic. Her contributions helped make the movie a
massive hit, but few roles followed. Studios were reluctant to cast Washington
because she was too light to play maids, and too black to play white women. She would appear in one more movie before
she returned to New York, where she focused on writing and co-founding the Negro Actors
Guild. During her entire time in Hollywood, she starred
in only four feature-length movies. She died from pneumonia in 1995. 5. Theresa Harris (1906-1985) When Theresa Harris appeared opposite Barbara
Stanwyck in the 1933 movie Baby Face, critics hailed her as a scene-stealer. Her enthusiasm caught the attention of director
Josef von Sternberg, who cast her in small roles in his first films, Thunderbolt and
Morocco. Yet despite her early promise, this daughter
of Texan sharecroppers was cast mostly as maids or waitresses in movies like Professional
Sweetheart (1933), Jezebel (1938), Cat People (1942), and Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Harris herself was outspoken about the lack
of good roles for black actors: “I never felt the chance to rise above the role of
maid in Hollywood movies. My color was against me… My ambitions are to be an actress. Hollywood had no parts for me.” Still, Harris continued to work, appearing
in a movie per year. By the 1950s, she made enough to retire and
live comfortably until her death in 1985 at the age of 75. 4. Nina Mae McKinney (1912-1967) Nina Mae McKinney was discovered while performing
in the chorus of the Broadway musical Blackbirds of 1928 by the director King Vidor, who cast
her in his 1929 musical Hallelujah. Her performance took Hollywood by storm, where
she was immediately hailed as “The Black Garbo.” A five-year MGM contract followed. However, film offers were few and far between. She’d star in two more movies — Safe in
Hell (1931) for Warner Brothers and Reckless (1935) for MGM, only to have her scenes edited
out of the film — before she left Hollywood in frustration and toured Europe as a cabaret
performer. She would return to the U.S. to continue acting,
but in most of her roles, like other black actors of the time, she was reduced to playing
subservient characters. McKinney died in 1967 from a heart attack. 3. Noble Johnson (1881-1978) Noble Johnson’s main distinction was starting
one of the first black film companies in Hollywood. The Lincoln Motion Picture Co., which he co-founded
with brother George, was meant to “encourage black pride.” Unfortunately, they only produced five films,
all of which starred Noble himself. The movies were successful, but the company
had trouble raising funds and Noble, who was on contract to Universal, was forced to choose
between working as an actor or working for his company. Thankfully, his acting career was much more
stable. He appeared in 150 movies, a feat he managed
to pull off because of his light skin. For example, the Coloradan native played an
Indian in his first film, Eagle’s Nest, a role he got when the original actor was
injured on set. Some of his more famous features include Four
Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), The Navigator (1924), Ben Hur (1933), King Kong (1933) and
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1940). His first speaking role in a talking picture
was Queequeg in Moby Dick (1930), with John Barrymore, the grandfather of Drew Barrymore,
as Captain Ahab. Johnson died in 1978, nearly thirty years
after his last movie — North of the Great Divide (1950). His contributions in breaking down barriers
for black actors and filmmakers are still largely unsung. 2. Madame Sul-Te-Wan (1873-1959) Kentucky native Madame Sul-Te-Wan, née Nellie
Crawford, has the distinction of being the first black contract player in Hollywood when
she appeared in D.W. Griffith’s infamous Birth of a Nation. She was also the only black actor in the entire
cast (most of the black characters were played by white actors). A single mother living in Hollywood, Sul-Te-Wan
changed her name to break into the movies, but had a difficult time getting any headway
until she begged Griffith to cast her. Impressed, Griffith hired her for three dollars
a week, then five. Eventually this led to a contract of $25 a
week, and a scene Griffith wrote especially for her (which was eventually cut). After its release, the NAACP protested the
movie’s racial attitudes and Sul-Te-Wan was criticized for taking part in it. Sul-Te-Wan was stunned by the criticism but
continued to defend her role, arguing that she had no choice but to provide for her kids. The studio dropped Sul-Te-Wan from contract
after the production ended, prompting her to hire a lawyer who got her back on contract
and working again. She remained friends with Griffith until his
death decades later. Sul-Te-Wan continued to appear in movies such
as Hoodoo Ann, Stage Struck, Queen Kelly and Carmen Jones. She worked opposite Anthony Quinn in 1958’s
The Buccaneer, before dying the following year from a stroke. Despite the controversy of her debut, Madame
Sul-Te-Wan was a pioneer in early Hollywood. 1. Slim Thompson (???) Not much is known about Slim Thompson. There aren’t any biographies of him and
his filmography includes only four roles, most of which were bit parts. provides some information: Before
he made his screen debut in The Petrified Forest, he had a brief boxing career in 1930
that ended when he lost a match by a first round knockout. What is known is that after his boxing career
he somehow ended up on the stage, appearing in the Broadway version of The Petrified Forest. His name is listed in Playbill and a photograph
published in the newspaper Afro-American on June 23, 1935, shows him backstage at the
Broadhurst Theatre. But those who encountered his work in the
film version, also starring Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, and Humphrey Bogart, were stunned
by his performance as a gangster holed up in an Arizona diner while on the lam. Thompson
breaks down all the stereotypes common for black men at the time, portraying a headstrong
man who refuses to bow down to whites. Though the character is a criminal, Thompson
portrays him with intelligence and dignity. Thompson appeared in three other movies — The
Green Pastures (1936), Lying Lips (1939) and Long Boy (1939) — but none of the roles
appear to be substantial or worthy of his talents. No further information on what became of Slim
Thompson after that is available, which is yet another example of what racism has taken
from American culture.

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