Lincoln Perry: The First Black Actor Who Divided Black America
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

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figure and when talented stars such as Lena Horne and Sidney Poitier emerged, no one cared much about Fetchit and his outdated shtick.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 sung 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.

“How Stepin Fetchit Became The First African-American Actor Millionaire.” Black Then. MAY 18, 2021

“The First Black Millionaire Actor Who Suddenly Lost It All and Never Came Back”. Face 2 Face Africa. MILDRED EUROPA TAYLOR. January 22, 2020

“Stepin Fetchit: The Life and Times of Lincoln Perry”. Champ Clark. New York Times. Dec. 12, 2005

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