“The First Lady of Screen” came from humble beginnings but her exuberant personality destined her for stardom. Evelyn Preer was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1896 and moved to Chicago at two after the death of her father. She first began acting in high school with the “Lady American Minstrels”. Not long after, she was the lead female performer in Charley Johnson’s Vaudeville Troupe. In her free time, she would spend her time preaching on street corners with her mother to raise money for her Pentecostal church.
She was spotted by filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, who is credited with being the first major African-American feature filmmaker, while on tour with the vaudeville troupe. Micheaux was drawn to her magnetism, and her cast her in his first film “The Homesteader” in 1919. This was followed by “Within Our Gates” in 1920.
Evelyn’s Career Takes Off
Michaeux’s pictures were considered “race films” featuring all African -American casts and designed to appeal to an African-American audience. Unlike their depictions in Hollywood films of maids and servants, Michaeaux’s films fought those stereotypes by depicting African-Americans as educated and respectable. Evelyn’s starring roles in these pictures gained her the title of “The First Lady of Screen” among audiences.
In 1920 Evelyn joined the legendary theatrical group “The Lafayette Players”, founded by Anita Bush, and in between films would perform everything from Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde.
Evelyn starred in ten films with Oscar Micheaux including “The Brute”, “Birthright” and “The Devil’s Disciples” until he could no longer afford her as she became more sought after.
She married fellow actor and costar Edward Thompson in 1924. At this point she was not only credited with being the first African American celebrity and “The First Lady of the Screen” but she also performed in crossover plays, including working as an understudy to Lenore Ulrich in 1926s Broadway play, “Lulu Belle”.
In 1928 she performed in the play “Rain” in Los Angeles and her starring role was considered a major breakthrough for a black actress, garnering attention from white audiences as well. During this time she would also sing and perform with Duke Ellington, making recordings under the name “Hotsy” Jarvis.
Jack of All Trades
After leaving Micheaux, Evelyn made three films as a contract player for Paramount, “Melancholy Dame”, “The Framing of the Shrew” and “Oft in the Silly Night” but she refused to perform in roles she felt demeaned her race.
In 1930 she made her first talkie “Georgia Rose”, the first black actress to do so. She continued to perform in two more Hollywood films, although uncredited- “Ladies of the Big House” with Sylvia Sidney and “Blonde Venus” in 1932 with Marlene Dietrich.
Gone too Soon
In April of 1932 Evelyn gave birth to her daughter Edeve. Unfortunately, Evelyn suffered from health complications soon thereafter and she passed away in November of double pneumonia. She was only 36 and thousands attended her funeral. Evelyn Preer had a rich and successful career that transcended racial barriers and she deserves to be remembered for her contributions to film and theatre.
*As seen on the Norman Studios Silent Film Museum Blog*
Sources and further reading : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evelyn_Preer , https://mediadiversified.org/2013/10/04/photo-gallery-black-actors-on-stage-and-screen/#jp-carousel-3750, https://aaregistry.org/story/evelyn-preer-pioneer-black-actress-born/, https://blackcinemaconnection.com/2014/02/17/evelyn-preer-2/, https://books.google.com/books?id=z6Cs0Y1pvRAC&q=Lawrence+Chenault+evelyn+preer&pg=PA218#v=snippet&q=Lawrence%20Chenault%20evelyn%20preer&f=false