The 1930s and 40s are combined here as they represent a time when most Blacks who even managed to work as actors in Hollywood were uncredited and mostly worked as extras on screen. Those few who bursts through the racial barriers were truly bright stars, enjoying immense visibility and popularity with wider audiences and especially with the Black community. In the 1930s, most Black women who appeared on screen played maids. The first Black actress guaranteed dignified roles and winning a real contract with a major studio was Lena Horne, who signed with MGM in 1942.It was a major milestone in cinema history and in Black history. Outside of mainstream Hollywood, Oscar Mischeaux was a successful, independent Black filmmaker who spotlighted several Black actresses. Josephine Baker took her talents and went to France where she became one of the greatest superstars in the universe, admired around the world. With all of this in mind, here are the ten best actresses of the 1930s and 1940s.
1. Lena Horne
One of Hollywood's greatest icons, the legendary singer, dancer,Civil Rights activist, and actress, Lena Horne blazed the trail for Blacks in Hollywood when in 1942, she became the first Black actor to sign a contract with a major studio. Signing with MGM, she appeared in ten films during the 1940s. The most significant of these have all become classics, including, Panama Hattie,Cabin in the Sky, and Stormy Weather. The title song of Stormy Weather lent Lena her signature song, a song with which she would be identified for the rest of her life. Read a fuller biography of her here.
2. Ethel Waters
A star on Broadway and in Harlem during the 1920s, at one point the highest paid performer on stage, Ethel Waters earned the nickname of "Sweet Mama Stringbean," for her sultry and seductive persona and her performances in the theatre and on the concert stage. Establishing a career as a singer as well as an actress, Waters came into Hollywood already a star. During the 1940s, she appeared in six films, including the iconic Cabin in the Sky in 1943. In 1949, she starred in the epic race drama, Pinky.
3. Nina Mae McKinney
Nina Mae McKinney first became known as the seductress, Chick in the first all-Black musical, Hallelujah! in 1929. She remained a prominent actress throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, appearing in a string of films throughout the decades, including seven films during the 1940s. In 1949, she had a supporting role in the iconic race drama, Pinky starring Ethel Waters.
4. Ethel Moses
A popular Harlem star of the 1920s, Ethel Moses began her career as a dancer and a singer and as a chorus girl on Broadway. Moses rose to cinema fame as one of the leading ladies in the films of legendary Black filmmaker Oscar Mischeaux. With Mischeaux, Moses made several classic films, including Temptation in 1935, Underworld in 1937, God's Stepchildren in 1938, and Birthright in 1939.
5. Hattie MacDaniel
The legendary Hattie McDaniel will be known to history as the first Black person ever to win an Academy Award. After enjoying a steady career in Hollywood playing a domestic, in 1939, she won a part in the classic film, Gone With the Wind playing the part of Mammy. For her performance, she was awarded the 1939 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She later was heard in the iconic Amos and Andy and starred in the 1950s TV sitcom, Beulah.
6. Fredi Washington
A popular actress of the 1930s, Fredi Washington appeared in two iconic films during the decade, Emperor Jones with Paul Robeson in 1933 and Imitation of Life with Louise Beavers and Claudette Colbert in 1934.
7. Josephine Baker
One of the world's first superstars, Josephine Baker got her start working Vaudeville and the chitlin and TOBA circuits around the country. By the time she was 15, she was on Broadway and starred in the iconic all-Black cast Broadway shows Shuffle Along in 1921 and Chocolate Dandies in 1924. Extended the opportunity to go to Paris and work, Josephine jumped at the opportunity, making her debut on the Paris stage in the classic La Revue Negre in 1925, appearing on stage wearing nothing but a string of feathers. She was an overnight sensation and proceeded to embark on a career that would land her as one of France's most treasured possessions and one of the world's greatest stars. In the middle of the Twentieth Century, Josephine Baker was the wealthiest Black woman in the world. She starred in ten films between the late 20s and the mid-fifties. Three of these became classics, Siren of the Tropics in 1927, Zou Zou in 1934, and Princess Tam Tam in 1935. After World War II, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government for her role in the French Resistance. She received the Legion of Honour in 1961. Baker was also one of the leaders of the American Civil Rights movement. At her death in 1975, she was given a state burial in Paris with full military honors.
8. Alice B. Russell
The wife of the legendary and pioneering Black filmmaker, Oscar Mischeaux (Russell is the actress in red that appears in the picture above), Alice B. Russell appeared in eleven films between the late 20s and the late forties, often appearing as the stern and wise maternal figure. Russell also worked behind the scenes as director and producer.
9. Dorothy Van Engle
Dorothy Van Engle was a popular actress in the 1930s and 1940s, one of Oscar Mischeaux's leading ladies. She starred in four of Mischeux's most popular films during the 1930s, Harlem After Midnight in 1934, Murder in Harlem in 1935, Swing in 1938, and God's Stepchildren in 1938.
Louise Beavers enjoyed great popularity as an actress in the 1930s and 1940s, playing domestics in Hollywood films. One of the most constantly working Black actresses in Hollywood, she appeared in 133 films between 1930 and 1950. Her greatest role came in 1934 when she played Annie Johnson opposite Claudette Colbert in the original version of Imitation of Life.