This is the Actor that Divided Black America and Here's Why
This is the Actor that Divided Black America and Here’s Why

This is the Actor that Divided Black America and Here’s Why

Patrick Lynch - March 27, 2018

The name ‘Lincoln Perry’ might not mean a great deal to you but as Stepin Fetchit – his on screen persona – Perry became the first black actor in America to earn a million dollars. He was also the first, even, to receive a screen credit in a movie. Fetchit’s time in the spotlight was relatively brief but during that timeframe, he was accused of perpetuating negative stereotypes about black Americans. Stepin Fetchit was billed as “the Laziest Man in the World” and his characterization as a slow-witted, lazy black man offended legions of black Americans.

On one hand, Fetchit was grossly offensive at a time when black Americans were still struggling with appalling and degrading racial stereotypes. His persona only served to mitigate the low status accorded to black Americans by whites by pretending to be an idiot; an act that only fulfilled their negative expectations. On the other hand, Fetchit was an extremely gifted comic actor. Other scholars believe he was an embodiment of the ‘trickster’ who pretended to be slow-minded to ensure his white employers had to do the work. Ultimately, Fetchit went down in infamy and Perry mishandled his fortune and died penniless.

This is the Actor that Divided Black America and Here’s Why
Stepin Fetchit – Pinterest

Early Life & Breakthrough

Lincoln Perry was officially born on May 30, 1902 in Florida although there is a suggestion that he was born as early as 1892. He ran away from home aged 14 and joined the vaudeville ‘Chitlin Circuit’. He was known as a highly intelligent man and wrote columns for The Chicago Defender, one of the country’s most important black American newspapers. Over time, Perry evolved a character known as the laziest man in the world who he called Stepin Fetchit.

While Perry claimed he took the name from a racehorse, some scholars believe it is a contraction of “step and fetch it.” The connection with a subservient ‘Uncle Tom’ persona is clear here. Black American historians believe Fetchit was the evolution of the ‘coon’ character, who pretended to be a fool to undermine his white masters. This particular character creation is one of the most insulting of all anti-black caricatures. The name itself, an abbreviation of raccoon, is dehumanizing. One of the most crucial components of this persona was the ability to talk in a language white people couldn’t understand and Perry was exceptional at ‘jive talking’. One of the reasons why black Americans are so angry with Fetchit is that white audiences at the time truly believed that this bumbling fool was a true representation of black people in America.

This is the Actor that Divided Black America and Here’s Why
Stepin Fetchit in Judge Priest (1934) – 123coolpictures.com

Fetchit got his big break in the silent movie In Old Kentucky in 1927. According to Mel Watkins, a notable film historian, Perry had created Fetchit to stand out from other performers of his day. Watkins claims that Fetchit “acted as if he didn’t know where he was.” The producer and the director of the movie had no clue what to make of Fetchit but were so astounded by his performance that they decided to cast him.

In any case, Fetchit excelled in the movie and earned a five-year contract. Two years later, Fetchit starred in Hearts in Dixie, one of the first movies to feature a mainly black cast. It was the beginning of a fantastic run for the actor, and between 1927 and 1939, Fetchit appeared in 44 films. He struck up a good partnership with friend, and fellow comic actor, Will Rogers. The duo appeared in several movies including David Harum, Judge Priest, and Steamboat ‘Round the Bend. By 1940, Fetchit temporarily went on strike because he wanted equal pay and billing with his white colleagues. By the time he came back in 1945 however, Fetchit’s schtick was getting old and his career hit the skids.

This is the Actor that Divided Black America and Here’s Why
Stepin Fetchit – Famous People

Lincoln Perry’s Personal Life

Perry may have earned well over a million dollars in his career, but he spent the money as fast as he could earn it. He was a regular attendee of the wild parties that went down at Hollywood’s Central Avenue. Although he lived in a modest (by movie star standards) bungalow with his father, sister, and employees, he had extravagant tastes in cars and clothes. It was normal for Perry to wear a designer outfit that cost over $1,000, an absolute fortune at the time. Bear in mind that the average annual salary in 1935 was around $1,500.

At the height of his fame, Perry had 16 servants and 12 fancy automobiles. He was known for not only his partying antics, but also some less than professional off-screen behavior. Perry was often involved in drunken brawls and had a penchant for 16-year old girls. He married one, Dorothy, but she died in 1934. Perry was arrested for a fling with another 16-year old girl and even at this stage, his career was almost over.

This is the Actor that Divided Black America and Here’s Why
Stepin Fetchit and Chubby Johnson in Bend of the River (1952) – Wikipedia

The Fall of Stepin Fetchit

Fetchit was in hot demand in the early 1930s and from 1929 to 1935, he appeared in 26 movies; he was occasionally working in up to four films at once. Special scenes were written for him and he received feature billing on his movies. While he was docile on-screen, the real-life Fetchit was argumentative and demanding so he quickly made enemies with actors, producers, and directors. He was effectively a pariah in Hollywood in 1936 although he continued to make movies. When he left in 1940, no one begged him to return and he only did so in 1945 because of financial problems.

Fetchit’s career as a ‘crossover’ star was almost finished at that point so he began working in ‘race’ films designed predominantly for black American audiences. By now, black Americans saw him as an Uncle Tom figure and when talented stars such as Lena Horne and Sidney Poitier emerged, no one cared much about Fetchit and his outdated shtick. Perry’s inability to evolve meant that there was nowhere for him to go when audiences, black and white, got sick of Stepin Fetchit. He declared bankruptcy in 1947 and claimed his assets amounted to a measly $146.

Now that Hollywood had turned its back on him, Perry returned to the vaudeville circuit and appeared at the Anderson Free Fair in 1949. From 1953 onward, he only appeared in a handful of cameos; with three such appearances in the 1970s. His last movie was a cameo appearance as a dancing butler in a spoof of the Rin Tin Tin craze called Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood. It was a sad end to his career and by then, Perry faced criticism from civil rights leaders who took umbrage with the Stepin Fetchit character. In a CBS documentary called Black History: Lost, Stolen, or Betrayed, the Fetchit character was singled out for criticism. Perry unsuccessfully sued CBS after the program aired in 1968.

This is the Actor that Divided Black America and Here’s Why
Lincoln Perry in 1959 – Wikipedia

Later Life & Death

Although he was a footnote in movie history after the mid-1940s, Perry didn’t completely disappear into obscurity. He became friends with Muhammad Ali in the 1960s and was awarded a Special NAACP Image Award in 1976. Perry converted to Islam to follow Ali’s example and achieved a degree of redemption in later life. In 1974, he appeared in Amazing Grace; his character scolded a white bus conductor to prevent him from mistreating Moms Mabley. Later in the movie, Mabley and Slappy White walk down the street and step on a poster of Stepin Fetchit to the sound of a haunting track sang by Lincoln Perry.

Perry was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978 but, unfortunately, he had suffered a stroke two years earlier. His personal life was also tinged with heartache and controversy. Perry had a son called Donald by his second wife Winifred in 1938. In April 1969, Donald murdered four people and injured 16 after going on a shooting spree on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Perry believes his son may have been set up but he only met Donald for the first time in 1967. On November 19, 1985, Perry died from pneumonia and heart failure in Woodland Hills, California.

This is the Actor that Divided Black America and Here’s Why
Ali and Perry – Afflictor.com

Stepin Fetchit – Lazy Stereotype or Misunderstood Genius?

By the time Lincoln Perry died in 1985, the majority of his films had been removed from circulation. The Stepin Fetchit character was generally reviled by black Americans and his very name was deemed insulting. If we analyze the Fetchit character in the modern era, it seems remarkably racist and yet another reminder of an era in race relations that most people would rather forget. Although Perry was clearly talented, he also led a troubled life and slipped far too easily into the negative stereotype for some.

Watkins wrote Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry in 2005 and he is a lot more sympathetic to the actor. Watkins believes Fetchit is a funny character and based on the ‘old Massa’ persona where the black worker would do anything to postpone the work and force their white masters to do it themselves. Others believe Watkins is wrong to suggest that Fetchit’s demeaning screen representation was better than what black actors generally received, which was nothing at all. It does seem as if Perry didn’t ‘break down the barriers’. Instead, he did whatever was necessary to become successful.

Perry once wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Courier where he admitted that he preferred to work as comedy relief with whites rather than blacks because with whites “I have no competition as to dialect and character, and therefore, have a much better chance for recognition.” In the end, there is a possibility that Perry was guilty of choosing fame over a sense of community. Although his name is no longer greeted with universal revulsion, it is far from being rehabilitated amongst black Americans and probably never will.

 

Where Do We Get This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources

‘Stepin Fetchit – Biography.” IMBd

“An Uncomfortable Character: Stepin Fetchit’s Dead-End Role.” Scott Eyman in Observer. May 2005.

“Stepin Fetchit, Hollywood’s First Black Film Star.” Roy Hurst in NPR. March 2006.

“Back in Blackface: The Rehabilitation of Stepin Fetchit.” Armond White in Slate. December 2005.

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