In the lore of early Black film history, no director’s footprint matches those of Oscar Micheaux, and if he had a female counterpart on the stage and screen it was Evelyn Preer. In fact, Micheaux often said Evelyn was his muse, and an accomplished, versatile actress who in many ways exceeded even his grand achievements. But it was what they did together that is most unforgettable.
She was born Evelyn Jarvis on July 26, 1896, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After the early death of her father, she moved with her mother and siblings to Chicago. Evelyn was a better than average student throughout her school days, though her involvement in vaudeville soon pushed aside any further academic commitment. Even so, she was 23 when she made her film debut in Micheaux’s 1919 classic film “The Homesteader.” Her role as Orlean won her wide praise and sealed her working relationship with the great filmmaker. According to Micheaux, Evelyn “could play any role assigned to her and did so cheerfully and without argument.”
With the popularity of “The Homesteader” and Evelyn portraying the daughter of a Black preacher and enduring a tragic matrimony, Micheaux wisely used her to promote the film and unwittingly gave her a platform that soon made her “the first lady of the screen” in Black films. A year later, she was once again Micheaux’s star in “Within Our Gates,” in which she plays Sylvia Landry, a teacher who needs to raise money to save her school. In 1920, the same year she made “Within Our Gates” and “The Brute,” another silent film by Micheaux, she joined Anita Bush’s The Lafayette Players, a theatrical company in Chicago.
Thus, in effect, Evelyn moved effortlessly between film productions and stage, and it wasn’t long before she began to earn kudos from the white press from several crossover performances. In 1923, for example, she acted in “The Chip Woman’s Fortune,” by Willis Richardson, the first dramatic play by an African American playwright produced on Broadway. It only lasted two weeks. Three years later she was back on Broadway in David Belasco’s production of “Lulu Belle,” and later she would perform both in a starring role and understudy part in an Edward Sheldon play about a Harlem prostitute. There was also an equal amount of success in Somerset Maugham’s play “Sadie Thompson.”
The stint on Broadway or other stage dates apparently did not interfere with her films with Micheaux, and from “Deceit” in 1923 to “Blonde Venus” in 1932, she was featured in more than a dozen of his films, including the acclaimed
“The Conjure Woman” in 1926. In this film she shared top billing with Lawrence Chenault and Sidney Easton. It was based on one of Charles W. Chesnutt’s short stories; however, there is no print of the film and it is presumed to be lost. Among her volume of film roles, the only one you’re lucky to see—other than catching a Micheaux festival—is “Blonde Venus,” where she shares the screen with Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich.
Evelyn was also a more than adequate vocalist and often sang in cabaret and musical theater and occasionally with big bands, including Red Nichols and Duke Ellington in which she recorded with him in 1929 about the same time as talkies began to gather some traction.
On the personal side, she married Frank Preer on Jan. 16, 1915, in Chicago. Her second husband was Edward Thompson and they often performed together as members of the Lafayette Players. There is no evidence that she was also at one time married to Lawrence Chenault. She gave birth to her only child, Edeve Thompson, in 1932 and she died after childbirth complications on Nov. 27, 1932, in Los Angeles. She was 36. Meanwhile, her husband continued to find minor roles in various race films throughout the 1940s and 1950s. He died in 1960.
One account notes that their daughter Edeve converted to Catholicism as a teen and later entered the Sisters of St. Francis of Oldenburg, Indiana, where she became known as Sister Francesca Thompson, O.S.F. and became a teacher at Marian University in Indiana and at Fordham University in New York.
There is a brief profile of her in the recent collector’s edition of Entertainment Weekly magazine’s “A Celebration of Black Film—A Century of Black Excellence at the Movies.”