#BlackHERStory Month Spotlight: Madame Sul-Te-Wan

It’s February 1st!! Yall know what that means…It’s Black History Month!!!

While I wholeheartedly believe in amplifying the voices and works of black people every day, Black History Month is the time of year when the world takes note of our achievements.

Here at reelsistas.com, I am celebrating #BlackHERstory month.  This month, I will highlight several women who have paved the way and laid the foundation for the women working in film and television today.

First up is, Madame Sul-Te-Wan.

Born Nellie Crawford on March 7, 1873, in Louisville, Kentucky, the woman who became Madame Sul-Te-Wan was the first black actor to sign a film contract and be a featured performer. The daughter of freed slaves, she worked as a maid for an actress in Louisville. She later moved to Cincinnati and joined the Three Black Cloaks theater company and performed under the name Creole Nell.

Madame married and gave birth to three sons. After the end of her marriage, she approached director D.W. Griffith about appearing in his latest film, BIRTH OF A NATION. The two became friends. It was during this time, she adopted the moniker, Madame Sul-Te-Wan.

Madam worked consistently throughout the 1910s until the 1940s. But as a black woman in a segregated America, she was often relegated to small, uncredited roles. Some speculated that she chose the name ‘Madame’ to demand the respect she knew she deserved. Because of her race and gender, Madame often played the role of a domestic servant. Some of the films she appeared in include:

  • THE CHILDREN PAY (1916)
  • STAGE STRUCK (1917)
  • COLLEGE (1927)
  • QUEEN KELLY (1929
  • KING KONG (1933)

Madame Sul-Te-Wan garnered critical praise for her work in the 1937 film MAID OF SALEM’ In the film, she played the character “Tituba.” In 1954, after over 40 years of playing domestics, Madame Sul-Te-Wan was able to break type when she was cast in ‘CARMEN JONES opposite Dorothy Dandridge, Olga James, and Harry Belafonte. Madame Sul-Te-Wan’s last screen appearance came in 1958. She had a part in the film THE BUCCANEER.

’ On February 1, 1959, Madame Sul-Te-Wan died in Hollywood, CA.  In 1986, Madame Sul-Te-Wan was inducted into The Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame.

I was unfamiliar with Madame Sul-Te-Wan’s story until I read Donald Bogles’s book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood.  Today, the legacy of Madame Sul-Te-Wan lives on in the careers of the numerous black women who truly love the art of acting, and filmmaking and work hard at their craft. Madame Sul-Te-Wan persevered in Hollywood for over five decades, doing what she loved. Madame Sul-Te-Wan is the inception of Black Hollywood. She is the epitome of black HERstory.

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