Madame Sul-Te-Wan died 53 years ago today. Not a name you recognize? Read on for a fascinating glimpse into cinematic history. Originally published February 2009.
Quick – name an actor whose 40-year career saw her work with legendary filmmakers and screenwriters like D.W. Griffith, Raoul Walsh, Anita Loos, G.W. Pabst, King Vidor, Preston Sturges, Erich Von Stroheim and Otto Preminger?
Need another hint? She acted alongside Lillian Gish, Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson, Lucille Ball, Claudette Colbert, Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman and Fay Wray. Let’s not forget to mention later stars like Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Rock Hudson, Sidney Poitier and Charlton Heston. Still drawing a blank?
Maybe you’ll remember the roles she played – Voodoo Sue, Mammy Beulah, Hattie, Miss Cully. If not, it’s a safe bet you don’t remember her turns as Charm Vendor, Flower Vendor, Witch Woman, Midwife, Young Family Servant or Scrubwoman. You probably can’t recall her work as Native Woman, Black Woman, Black Convict Woman, Black Cook or Slave.
The actor is Madame Sul-Te-Wan, and though you may not recognize her name, she played a pioneering role in the early history of cinema by becoming the first black performer – male or female – to sign a contract with a major movie studio.
Born Nellie Crawford in 1873 to Kentucky freed slaves, Crawford was exposed to showbiz at a young age. Her preacher father, whom she described as having “…the Bible in one hand and all the women he could get in the other,” left the family early on and Crawford’s mother supported them by working as a laundress to performers from Louisville’s Buckingham Theatre, employer of famous actresses like Mary Anderson and Fanny Davenport. The young Crawford would often observe rehearsals and performances from the wings, and her own onstage debut came in a “buck and wing” dance contest at age 6, in which she took first place. Her prize? A granite dishpan and a granite spoon. By age 8, she’d already tried to run away to join the circus. Performing was in her blood.
She moved to Cincinnati, joined a troupe called Three Black Cloaks and began working under the stage name “Creole Nell.” She would later form her own troupes – The Black Four Hundred, who employed 16 performers and 12 musicians, and the Rare Black Minstrels, who successfully toured the East coast Negro vaudeville circuit.
It was a hardscrabble living, and she was probably happy to get out of the business and follow her new husband, Robert Creed Conley, to Acadia, California in 1910. Real estate was affordable and work plentiful there, and the Negro press was encouraging black Americans to relocate West. At the same time, the budding film industry had begun moving production to the Los Angeles area, not only for the good weather and easy access to a variety of locales (deserts, mountains, beaches) but also to escape patent enforcement and licensing fees from equipment manufacturers back East.
Nellie quickly ran into hard times out West, as her husband soon deserted her and her three kids, the youngest only three weeks old. In what would become a California tradition, she reinvented herself – she became Madame Sul-Te-Wan and tried to resurrect her acting career.
It was tough going. She was 10 months behind on her rent when she heard that fellow Kentuckian and famous director D.W. Griffith was going to be shooting a film based on the best-selling novel The Clansmen. She begged him for a job. Griffith was so impressed he hired her on the spot, paying her $3 a day. After only one day’s work, he bumped her rate up to $5 a day and would soon sign her to a contract that paid $25 a week whether she did any acting or not. For The Clansmen (titled Birth of a Nation upon release), he even wrote a special scene for her where she portrayed a rich, finely gowned black woman who stood for the rise of the Negro race in the antebellum South (the scene was later cut from the film).
It was a highly unusual move for Griffith, who preferred black roles be played by white actors in blackface, and it's one of the great ironies in film history that the first black woman to be hired as a stock player in Hollywood would feature in perhaps the most baldly racist movie Hollywood ever produced: one in which the last act sees the Ku Klux Klan galloping to defeat a mob of “crazed Negroes.”
Nationwide the movie was met with protests by the NAACP and riots broke out in several major cities at its showings. The film was not without personal controversy for Madame Sul-Te-Wan either, who had been accused of stealing a book from a white actress on set. When the movie was protested in Los Angeles, the studio accused Madame Sul-Te-Wan of having stirred black sentiment against the film, and she was fired. Ever the fighter, she contacted attorney Edward Burton Ceruti, a black attorney who had made a name for himself winning high-profile racial discrimination cases, and with his efforts she was reinstated to the Majestic Motion Picture Company payroll.
Unlike so many silent-era players, Madame Sul-Te-Wan successfully made the transition to sound and enjoyed a lengthy career, albeit playing one-dimensional, stereotypical characters who tended to appear in the script as occupations rather than names. One can guess Madame Sul-Te-Wan’s attitude about the kind of roles mainstream Hollywood offered black women at the time was probably similar to that of her counterpart Hattie McDaniel, who famously said, “I’d rather play a maid and make $700 a week than be a maid for $7.”
Later in her career, Madame Sul-Te-Wan did get a chance to showcase some of her talents, winning praise for her role in the hit movie Maid of Salem. And when Dorothy Dandridge became the first African American nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, Madame Sul-Te-Wan appeared in the film as her grandmother. Apparently she was so convincing in the role that for years biographers mistakenly referred to her as Dandridge’s real-life grandmother.
Madame Sul-Te-Wan died at the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodlawn Hills, California on February 1st, 1959. Nearly 30 years later, she was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, a clear tribute to a trailblazer who, though never a big star in her own right, paved the way for so many who would follow.