Lincoln Perry, the First African-American Movie Star

Lincoln Perry (stage name Stepin Fetchit) circa 1927
Lincoln Perry (stage name Stepin Fetchit) circa 1927
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before the likes of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington, successful African-American actors were hard to find in Hollywood. Lincoln Perry (1902-1985) is often credited as the world’s first African-American movie star. Using the stage name Stepin Fetchit, he is also said to be the first black actor to become a millionaire.

Born in Key West, Florida, Perry had a Jamaican father and Bahamian mother. His father, Joseph Perry, was a cigar wrapper and cook who sometimes sang and danced in minstrel shows. His mother, a devout Catholic, worked as a seamstress for a dentist’s family. As a young teenager, Perry sang and tap-danced as a tent-show performer, traveling around the U.S. with carnivals and medicine shows. In his twenties, Perry performed in black vaudeville shows as one-half of a duo called “Step and Fetch It” (although he also claimed to have taken the name "Stepin Fetchit” from a racehorse). After he came to Los Angeles in the 1920s, a talent scout for Fox Studios offered him a screen test, which proved successful.

During his career, Perry appeared in more than 40 movies, such as 1929’s Hearts In Dixie, 1930’s A Tough Winter, and 1934’s Judge Priest. In one of his early roles, 1927’s silent film In Old Kentucky, Perry won audiences over by providing comic relief. He got a contract with Fox to appear in the studio’s films as a featured player. Credited as Stepin Fetchit, Perry pretended to be “The Laziest Man On Earth” (or sometimes “The Laziest Man In The World”) to make audiences laugh, and he played a similar character in multiple films.

Perry’s peak of fame and fortune was in the 1930s, when he became a millionaire. Newspapers, magazines, and tabloids featured articles on Perry and his extravagant lifestyle. He reportedly owned a dozen cars (including a pink Cadillac with his name in neon lights), wore expensive cashmere suits, and had 16 servants and chauffeurs. He also attended Hollywood parties with celebrities such as Will Rogers, John Wayne, Mae West, Shirley Temple and, later, Muhammad Ali.

Beginning in the 1930s, though, Americans (black and white) and civil rights leaders harshly condemned Perry’s portrayals. Because he frequently played lazy, illiterate characters—often an aloof, slow, confused man with drooping eyes and rambling, incoherent speech—Perry was called out for promoting racist stereotypes. Criticized as a buffoon, an embarrassment, and a degrading caricature, Perry’s characters were seen as perpetuating the contemporary racist ideas of black people as lazy, dumb, and unsophisticated.

At the time, the NAACP was working to get film studios to give equal pay and billing to black and white actors, and to stop portraying black people negatively. Perry tried to get equal pay and billing from Fox, but failed, and quit Hollywood by 1940. In 1947, he was bankrupt. His acting work was sporadic in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He died in 1985 in Los Angeles, at a hospital for members of the motion picture and television industry.

Although black historians and critics have often viewed Perry’s contributions to cinema negatively, some of them take a more nuanced view. Jimmie Walker, a black comedian, said that he doesn’t think Stephin Fetchit is all bad. According to Walker, Perry created a funny character that actually functions as a subversive trickster. In films, Perry’s character would often outsmart white characters by pretending to be incompetent so that the white people would get impatient and end up doing the work themselves. Black film critic Mel Watkins has said that African-Americans understood that Perry’s character had its origins in slaves resisting work, and found the humor in it.

Because Perry was billed as Stepin Fetchit rather than as Lincoln Perry, audiences had a difficult time separating the actor from his character. In a 1968 interview, Fetchit said, “Just because Charlie Chaplin played a tramp doesn't make tramps out of all Englishmen, and because Dean Martin drinks, that doesn't make drunks out of all Italians … I was only playing a character, and that character did a lot of good.” Far from being lazy or stupid himself, Perry wrote regular columns for The Chicago Defender newspaper to share his experience in Hollywood.

In 1976, Perry got a Special NAACP Image Award for his accomplishments, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame under the name Stepin Fetchit. Despite disagreements about Perry’s legacy, many agree that he opened a door for black actors in Hollywood.

This article first ran in 2017.

Bessie Coleman, the Black Cherokee Female Pilot Who Made Aviation History

Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain
Photo illustration by Riccardo Zagorodnez, Mental Floss. Plane/landscape, iStock via Getty Images. Portrait, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Early 20th century America didn’t offer many career paths to people like Bessie Coleman. It was a time when women were discouraged from working outside domestic spheres, and opportunities for women of African American and Native American descent were even more limited. When Coleman fell in love with the idea of flying planes, she knew that realizing her dream would be impossible in the United States—but instead of giving up, she moved to France to enroll in flight school. Less than a year later, she returned home as the first African American and the first Native American female pilot in aviation history.

A Determined Beginning

Bessie Coleman was born to sharecroppers in Texas on January 26, 1892. She was one of 13 siblings, and like the rest of Coleman clan, she was expected to help pick cotton on the farm as soon as she was old enough. At 6 years old, she started walking to school: a one-room wooden shack located four miles from her house. Her classroom often lacked basic supplies like paper and pencils, and, like all schools in the region, it was segregated.

Despite less-than-ideal conditions, she excelled in class and continued her studies through high school. In 1901, her father, who was part black and part Cherokee, relocated to Native American territory in Oklahoma to escape discrimination in Texas, leaving Bessie and the rest of his family behind. She knew she couldn’t depend on her now single-parent family to contribute money toward her education, so to save for college, she went to work as a laundress.

After a year at the Colored Agricultural and Normal University—now Langston University—in Langston, Oklahoma, she dropped out when her tuition fund ran dry. Even though she was more educated than many women of the time, there were few opportunities for her in the South. At age 23, she followed her brothers to Chicago, which, though racially segregated, was slightly more welcoming to people of color than Texas had been. In Chicago, Coleman was able to mingle with influential figures in the African American community. She went to beauty school and became a manicurist in a local barbershop.

Chicago was also where she decided she wanted to learn how to fly.

Dreams of Flight—and France

Around the same time Coleman moved up north, World War I erupted in Europe. The conflict quickened the pace of technological advancement, including in aviation. For the first time in history, people around the world could watch fighter planes soar through the skies in newsreels and read about them in the papers. Coleman fell in love.

When her brother John returned home to Chicago after serving overseas, he gave her more material to fuel her daydreams. In addition to regaling her with war stories, he teased her about her new fantasy, claiming that French women were superior to local women because they were allowed to fly planes, something Bessie would never be able to do. He may have said the words in jest, but they held some truth: Female pilots were incredibly rare in the U.S. immediately following World War I, and black female pilots were nonexistent.

Coleman quickly learned that American flight instructors were intent on keeping things that way. Every aviation school she applied to rejected her on the basis of her race and gender.

Fortunately for Coleman, her brothers weren't her only source of support in Chicago. After moving to the city, she met Robert Abbott, publisher of the historic black newspaper The Chicago Defender and one of the first African American millionaires. He echoed John’s idea that France was a much better place for aspiring female pilots, but instead of rubbing it in her face, he presented it as an opportunity. Abbott viewed France as one of the world’s most racially progressive nations, and he encouraged her to move there in pursuit of her pilot's license.

Coleman didn’t need to be convinced. With her heart set on a new dream, she quit her job as a manicurist and accepted a better-paying role as the manager of a chili parlor to raise money for her trip abroad. At night she took French classes in the Chicago loop. Her hard work paid off, and with her savings and some financial assistance from Abbot and another black entrepreneur named Jesse Binga, she boarded a ship for France in November 1920.

The First Black Aviatrix

Coleman was the only non-white person in her class at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. Students were taught to fly using 27-foot-long biplanes that were known to stall in mid-air. One day, she even witnessed one of her classmates die in a crash. Describing the incident later on, she said, "It was a terrible shock to my nerves, but I never lost them."

Despite the risks, she pressed on with lessons, and after seven months of training, she received her aviation license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. She became both the first African American woman and the first Native American woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license.

Coleman completed some extra flight lessons in Paris and then boarded a ship bound for the United States. American news outlets were instantly smitten with the 29-year-old pilot. The Associated Press reported on September 26, 1921 that "Today [Coleman] returned as a full-fledged aviatrix, said to be the first of her race."

In the early 1920s, an aviatrix, or female aviator, was still a fairly new concept in America, and many of the most famous women flyers of the 20th century—like Laura Ingalls, Betty Skelton, and Amelia Earhart—had yet to enter the scene. Coleman's persistence helped clear the path for the next generation of female pilots.

But her success in France didn’t mark the end of her battle with racism. Bessie needed more training to learn the airshow tricks she now hoped to do for a living, but even with her international pilot's license and minor celebrity status since returning home, American flight schools still refused to teach her. Just a few months after landing in the U.S., Bessie went back to Europe—this time to Germany and the Netherlands as well as France to learn the barnstorming stunts that were quickly growing into one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the 1920s.

Upon her second homecoming in 1922, newspapers praised her once again, reporting that European aviators had dubbed her "one of the best flyers they had seen." Finally, she would be able to show off her skills in her home country. Robert Abbott, the newspaperman who helped fund her dream, sponsored her first-ever American airshow at Curtiss Field, Long Island, on September 3, 1922. She spent the next few years touring the country, thrilling spectators by parachuting, wing-walking (moving atop the wings of her biplane mid-flight), and performing aerial figure-eights.

Coleman had become a real celebrity, and she tried to use her prominence to help black people. She gave speeches on aviation to predominantly black crowds and planned to open her own flight school for African American students. She only performed for desegregated audiences—the one notable exception being a show in Waxahachie, Texas, the town where she lived for most of her childhood. Event organizers planned to segregate black and white guests and have them use separate entrances. Coleman protested and threatened to cancel the exhibition unless a single entrance was set up for everyone. Officials eventually agreed, though audience members were still forced to sit on separate sides of the stadium once they entered.

Just when it seemed her career was reaching new heights, it was cut short by tragedy. On April 30, 1926, she was riding with her mechanic William Wills in Jacksonville, Florida, in preparation for a show scheduled for the next day, when a wrench left in the engine caused the plane to spin out of control. Coleman hadn’t been wearing her seatbelt, and she was tossed from the passenger seat at 3000 feet above the ground. She died at age 34.

Bessie Coleman never achieved the same level of name recognition as some of her peers, but the impact she left on aviation history is undeniable. Even if they’ve never heard her name, Chicagoans living near Lincoln Cemetery have likely heard the sounds of jets flying overhead on April 30. Every year on the anniversary of her death, black pilots honor Coleman by performing a flyover and dropping flowers on her grave.

Lydia Locke, the Early 20th Century Opera Singer With a Life Ripped From the Tabloids

Photo collage by James Mato, Minute Media. Portraits: Wikimedia Commons. Newspaper clipping: Newspapers.com.
Photo collage by James Mato, Minute Media. Portraits: Wikimedia Commons. Newspaper clipping: Newspapers.com.

If the events of Lydia Locke's life ever became the inspiration for an opera, the plot would probably get accused of being over the top.

Locke rose to prominence in the early 1900s, when mass celebrity was still a relatively new concept. But the American soprano embraced the label, making news both for her performances at the world’s most prestigious venues and for her fashion choices. Yet it was her tumultuous personal life that garnered the most attention: Between seven marriages, two dead husbands, and one fraudulent baby, her life was scandalous even by the standards of today's news.

'Til Death Do Us Part

Lydia Locke was born into a humble household in Hannibal, Missouri, in 1886. She started performing on stage as a teenager, and had reached full-fledged stardom by her early twenties. As a young adult, she performed at Oscar Hammerstein’s London Opera House and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. She maintained an extravagant persona off-stage, with magazines writing about where she traveled on vacation and what she wore to the latest party at the Ritz-Carlton.

There was a messy love life hiding behind the glamorous image. Around age 22, Locke married her first husband, 43-year-old Reginald W. Talbot, in Reno, Nevada. Their marriage was stormy from the start. Talbot, who had already been married three times before, was a gambler who had hoped for a wife that would make home life a peaceful contrast to his time at the casino. Locke wasn’t interested in becoming a model of domesticity, and after a year of arguing over the matter, Talbot beat her brutally one night.

They met with Locke’s divorce lawyer the next morning, but having a third person in the room did little to defuse the tension. They started arguing, Talbot became violent, and Locke retaliated by pulling a pistol from her fur muff and shooting her husband three times.

Reginald Talbot died in the lawyer’s office, and Locke was charged with his murder. The prosecution attempted to paint her as an amoral killer, but thanks to testimony of Talbot’s abuse from the house staff, as well as Locke's sweet voice and good looks, she won over the jury. They even applauded when the singer was acquitted.

A Honeymoon Cut Short

Now single, Locke redirected her energy into her professional life, performing in operas in Paris and Chicago. But it didn’t take long for her to find husband No. 2. Orville Harrold was a former hearse driver from Muncie, Indiana, and an opera tenor who worked for Oscar Hammerstein. He was also married. That didn’t stop him from falling for Locke, and a few days after finalizing his divorce from his wife back home, he married Locke in 1913. He told publications that his new wife was “one of the greatest things in my life. Lydia is of intellectual assistance to me. She possesses an amiable and loving disposition.”

His bride, meanwhile, declared her commitment in interviews. "Woman is spoiled," she said. "So many of her sex have demanded affection and given nothing in return for so long that she hasn't awakened to the fact that the ideal companionship of man and woman must consist of equal parts of affection, sacrifice, and sympathy."

Despite these optimistic words, the honeymoon phase didn’t even last through the literal honeymoon. The pair went to Italy after the wedding. As Jim Logan, superintendent of the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery—where Locke is buried—tells Atlas Obscura, Locke shot at Harrold with a gun on the trip; it's not entirely clear why. Lucky for him, her aim wasn’t as sharp as it had been the last time she pointed a pistol at a spouse. Their union somehow continued for several more years, likely aided by the fact that Harrold’s work took him around the world and out of the immediate path of his wife’s rage. When he wasn’t around, Locke found other outlets for her temper, including punching a chauffeur over 25 cents and brawling with a maid over eight days’ rent.

Eventually her second marriage did end, this time in divorce instead of death. The legal process was still underway when Locke met the man who was to become her third husband: A wealthy organ company president named Arthur Marks. The pair wed around 1918, not long after her divorce from Harrold went through.

A Hefty Bribe and a Stolen Baby

The marriage to Marks turned out to be one of the opera singer’s longer romantic entanglements, and arguably the one that most closely resembled a soap opera. The couple stayed married for six years, and even adopted a son together, before the union proved too much for her husband. Suffering from severe exhaustion, Marks checked into a sanitarium around 1924, where he was promptly badgered by calls from his wife. The doctor spoke with her, and following their conversation, told Marks: “You’d better pack up. I can’t do anything for you. What you need is a divorce.”

The exact details that led to this breaking point are unclear, but after the couple officially split in 1924, things got much uglier. Locke continued to pester her ex-husband by calling him on the phone at all hours. He couldn’t take it anymore, and offered her a deal: He would pay her $100,000 on top of the $300,000 alimony she had already received if she agreed not to contact him for at least a year.

The arrangement didn’t last long. She broke the agreement and reached out after six months, but only because she had news she thought Marks would want to hear. She told him she had given birth since they saw each other last, and claimed that he was the father. Anticipating any doubts he might have, she showed up with a birth certificate, affidavits, and an actual baby to prove it.

Arthur Marks was prepared to support his alleged child, but knowing his former wife too well, he hired private detectives to investigate the matter further. His suspicions were confirmed: The child wasn’t his. And it wasn’t Locke’s either; she had “borrowed” the baby from the Willow Maternity Hospital in Kansas City under a fake name and forged the birth certificate. When the police came to collect the infant, she admitted that she “made an error somehow” and avoided any criminal charges.

"Like a Vamp in the Movies"

Lydia Locke was around 38 years old during her interlude with the stolen infant, and the second half of her life was no less exciting than the first. After discovering that Marks had married one of her former friends, she sent him a “poison pen” letter filled with descriptions of his new wife's behavior too salacious for newspapers to publish. She was indicted by a federal grand jury for spreading obscene accusations through the mail and sued by Mark's wife for defamation. Locke showed little remorse. She painted herself as a victim and her ex-husband as the villain when speaking to newspapers. "This is a frame-up," she said. "I will be completely vindicated and that man—that man; I'll see that he is properly punished for this." Though she was never "completely vindicated" in the eyes of the public, neither case made it to trial.

Meanwhile, Locke had found a new husband in her personal assistant, Harry Dornblaser. Husband No. 4 was out of the picture almost immediately, skipping out on their honeymoon in Europe and turning up dead from apparent suicide in a cabin in Cleveland, Ohio, a few months later.

Her next husband was a former Balkan count she married in 1927 and divorced in the 1930s. Her last wedding, to businessman and real estate tycoon Irwin Rose, was listed on her marriage certificate as her seventh—indicating there had been a sixth marriage after the count, though the identity of this mystery groom remains unknown.

The seventh time proved to be the charm for Lydia Locke. The pair moved into a mansion on Locke’s 1000-acre estate in Yorktown, New York, and ran an inn together on the property. Following 12 years of marriage—a personal record for her—she died in 1966 at age 82.

By the end of her life, Lydia Locke’s media reputation had transformed from fabulous socialite to a woman who was “like a vamp in the movies” and “veteran of the divorce wars." Following her death, she did receive a little recognition for something other than her love life: In 1968, one of the concert gowns that made her a fashion icon was displayed at the Davenport House [PDF] museum in Yorktown. But even in today’s age of nonstop celebrity gossip coverage, Locke is remembered, above all else, for her scandals.

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