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.
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