Today we honor and celebrate a pioneering actress, who sadly received little of the recognition or opportunity she deserved during her lifetime. Nellie Crawford was born in Louisville, KY on this date in 1873. Today would have been her 141st birthday. Her parents were freed slaves, her mother a laundress who worked for a number of stage actresses. Nellie would watch rehearsals with fascination while picking up and delivering for her mother. She determined that she would make the stage her career.
As Creole Nell, she moved to Cincinnati and formed the theatrical company Three Black Cloaks. She toured the east coast, gaining experience and a fascination with film. Deciding that she wanted to be part of the new entertainment industry, she wrote to director DW Griffith (who was filming in Louisville) and set up a meeting.
As a result, her breakthrough role was ironically in Griffith’s notoriously racist epic Birth of A Nation. Based on that work, however, she became the first African-American to sign a film contract to be a feature performer. During the early years of film she worked with many luminaries including Tom Mix, Buster Keaton, Gloria Swanson, and Dorothy and Lillian Gish. She had dropped the name Creole Nell in favor of the mysterious moniker Madame Sul-Te-Wan. As a testament to her strong will and personality, Lillian Gish has observed of the name change,
We never did discover the origin of her name. No one was bold enough to ask.
Madame Sul-Te-Wan made a fairly smooth transition to talkies. She continued to work regularly, alongside a new crop of stars including Barbara Stanwyck, Conrad Nagel, Veronica Lake, and Lucille Ball. Sadly, Hollywood had little room for significant African-American roles and she was almost always cast as a Mammy, slave, or domestic, frequently acting without a screen credit. There were a few notable exceptions, such as her role as Tituba in the Salem witch trial film Queens of Salem, starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert.
She also starred in Carmen Jones, Otto Preminger’s musical adaptation of the opera starring Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, and a cast of mostly African-American actors. As a testament to the underlying racism of the time her compelling performance as Dandridge’s character’s grandmother led to rumors that the actresses must in fact be related.
Working into her 80s, Madame Sul-Te-Wan had her last role in the Yul Brynner vehicle The Buccaneer. She died of a stroke in 1959, in her apartment at the Motion Picture Actor’s Home. She left behind an impressive, determined legacy.
Happy Birthday, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, and thank you!