Forgotten Hollywood: Lincoln Perry, the First Black Movie Star

by Noel De Souza August 21, 2020
Lincoln Perry

Getty Images

Lincoln Theodore Perry, better known by his stage name Stepin Fetchit, was the first Black movie star, appearing in more than 52 films. He was also the first to become a millionaire.

Perry started his career as a vaudevillian on the ‘chitlin’ circuit with the persona of “the laziest man in the world” named Stepin Fetchit. As part of a two-man act called Step and Fetch-It, he contracted the name to arrive at his professional moniker when he went solo. He always maintained that he named himself after a racehorse and was not a version of a servile Uncle Tom character. However, the Stepin Fetchit character was a lazy, cringing lackwit, that most despised of all Negro stereotypes. But that character caught the attention of the producers of a silent film called In Old Kentucky in 1927, and Perry’s film career was born with a five-year contract with Fox Film Corporation shortly after its release.

Perry was born in Key West, Florida in 1902 to a Jamaican father and a Bahamian mother. At age 12, he ran away from home to join a carnival and entered the vaudeville circuit in his teens as a comic and dancer. Through the ‘20s and ‘30s, Perry’s career was at its peak as Stepin Fetchit appeared in 44 films. While white audiences at the time embraced him as a representation of the Black race, in later years historians attempted to explain the controversial depiction as that of a man defying his masters by purposely appearing stupid and lazy to thwart their commands.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1968, Perry explained, “Just because Charlie Chaplin played a tramp doesn’t make tramps out of all Englishmen, and because Dean Martin drinks, that doesn’t make drunks out of all Italians. I was only playing a character, and that character did a lot of good.”  Perry signed with producer Hal Roach in 1930 to appear in nine of the comedy shorts Our Gang. He also appeared in several films with good friend Will Rogers like David Harum (1934) and Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935). While he tried to get equal pay and billing with his White co-stars, he never succeeded, though he was the first Black actor to get onscreen credit.

Stepin Fetchit (aka Lincoln Perry), Charles Middleton, and Will Rogers in “David Harum” (1934)

Stepin Fetchit (aka Lincoln Perry), Charles Middleton, and Will Rogers in David Harum (1934)

 

By 1947 he was bankrupt after a lavish lifestyle, his career in White films over. All the fancy cars were gone, and the parties were over. Civil rights leaders continued to criticize his controversial character. Though he got some work in Black films, by 1960 he was reduced to trying to make a living by touring a comedy act. In 1965, Muhammad Ali reached out to Perry who had been friendly with boxer Jack Johnson. He wanted Perry to teach him a tactic called the “anchor punch,” and Perry became a member of his entourage. He even converted to the Nation of Islam. There was even a play about their relationship called Fetch Clay, Make Man by Will Power that was performed off-Broadway in 2013.

In 1977, Perry entered the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital after suffering a stroke the previous year where he passed away in 1985 at the age of 83.

Stepin Fetchit was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1976, and that same year he received a special NAACP Image Award. He was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1978.

There are few of his films available today; many had his scenes cut out of rereleases.