Leight Whipper Credit: (Fair use image) 20th Century Fox 1943

Whether credited or uncredited, African Americans have consistently popped up in films, and Leigh Whipper was among the pacesetters in these cameo appearances. You probably saw him in countless productions without knowing who he was or the challenges he faced making it as a Black actor in Hollywood.

Whipper was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1875 or 1876, depending on the source. His father was William James Whipper, a noted abolitionist, trial lawyer, and municipal judge. Frances Rollin Whipper, his mother, was a writer. He attended public school in the nation’s capital and later earned a law degree from Howard University Law School in 1895. Rather than pursue what appeared to be a promising career in the legal arena, he chose to follow his dream in theater.

Interestingly, Whipper never really studied acting and was not a drama student, but by watching others perform, he picked up style and technique from the leading actors of the day. This keen observation was wedded with his voracious reading and interpretation of the great writers, including the famous poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. He made his acting debut in stock theater in Philadelphia in 1899 with a role in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” based on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. It was as a member of the Georgia Minstrels that he made his first Broadway appearance. In 1920, he had his first film role as an Indian fakir in Oscar Micheaux’s silent film “The Symbol of the Unconquered.”

He appeared in a number of productions with small parts before landing a more substantial role in “Of Mice and Men,” which brought him considerable notice and praise. But it was as crab man in “Porgy,” in which he was a vocal vendor selling all sorts of fish that was a highlight of the production, so much so that later it was included in the film version.

In 1943, he was in the cast of “The Oxbow Incident,” acting alongside Henry Fonda and later in “Mission to Moscow” that year receiving accolades for his portrayal of Emperor Haile Selassie. His scene in which he delivered a speech before the League of Nations has often been cited as hallmark in his remarkable career. 

By this time, he was a prominent member of the Actors’ Equity Association, and its first Black member in 1913. Along with his activism in in Equity, he was a member of the American Federation of Radio Artists (1937) and the Screen Actors’ Guild. Of even greater significance, he was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America in 1937. Accompanying him in this accomplishment was actress Fredi Washington, who was his leading lady in the Broadway production of “Lysistrata.”

Whipper, during World War II, was a member of the steering committee of the Negro Division of the Hollywood Victory Committee. His film career flourished in the 1940s before and after the war in such popular motion pictures as “Lost Boundaries” in 1949, where he portrayed a janitor; “The Shrike” in 1955, “The Young Don’t Cry” in 1957, and Lodi in the Peter Gunn feature, “Streetcar Jones.”

Another Jones, the artist Lois Mailou Jones, painted an oil on canvas portrait of him that’s at the Brooklyn Museum, and entitled “Dans un Café a Paris.”  According to a review on the museum’s webpage, “The artist’s portrayal of a pensive Whipper answered Alain Locke’s call for Black artists to create ennobling representations of African Americans.”

He was an inspiration for a number of aspiring actors and artists and was even among the notables who spirited Julieanna Richardson’s dream to create the now highly successful website, HistoryMakers. It was an early interview with him while she was a student at Brandeis in which his narrative was so compelling and set her a lifelong pursuit.

Writer Michael Sragow in his review of “The Oxbow Incident” for the Library of America recounts this powerful scene from the film and Whipper’s emotional performance. “Whipper, who created the crabbed stable-hand Crooks in John Steinbeck’s stage version of ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1937) and perfected the part in Lewis Milestone’s transcendent movie (1939), conjures an oasis of moral sanity with the tall, thin, wraith-like Sparks, the town’s handyman and unofficial preacher. (Trotti and Wellman wisely remove Clark’s mealy-mouthed white minister.) 

“As Sparks recalls his brother’s lynching,” Sragow continues, “Whipper’s haunted delivery cuts to the bone. After this latest lynching is done, Whipper drops to his knees. As the men scatter and leave him alone in the suddenly silent clearing, Sparks sings with personal urgency to each of the hanged men: ‘You got to go through Lonesome Valley/ You got to go there by yourself.’ The words hover over the men who ride off. There’s no better evidence of the value an alert director like Wellman and an instinctive talent like Whipper can add to an archetypal situation. They elevate the scene to a poetic lamentation.”

Lessons from Dunbar’s poems and theater performances that nourished his dream may have been in play during this memorable scene.

Whipper had many stage appearances after his Hollywood days were over in the early 1970s. When Richardson found him, he was living in Harlem where he died in 1975, just shy of his 99th birthday. His daughter, Leighla Frances Whipper, was a calypso songwriter and music publisher.  

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