Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Evelyn Preer

Episode Summary

Evelyn Preer (1896-1932) was one of the first Black actresses to earn celebrity status. She was known as “The First Lady of the Screen.”

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s leading lady was one of the first Black actresses to earn celebrity status.  She was known as “The First Lady of the Screen.” Let’s talk about Evelyn Preer. 

Evelyn Jarvis was born in 1896 in Vicksburg, Mississippi. After her father died, Eveylyn’s family moved to Chicago, where she performed in Vaudeville shows and practiced “street preaching,” to raise funds to build a church. In 1915, when she was 19 years old, Evelyn married her first husband, Frank Preer.

In 1918, Evelyn met author and director Oscar Micheaux, who would become a highly influential African-American filmmaker. Micheaux made films for a predominantly Black audience, and was able to avoid stereotypes that Hollywood films incorporated. 

 Evelyn made her film debut in Oscar’s film The Homesteader, where she played a woman whose evil overbearing father causes her husband to abandon her. Oscar made Evelyn his go-to leading actress, and in 1920, she starred in Within Our Gates. She played a teacher who fights to save a school for Black children . It’s the only feature film Evelyn made that has survived to this day. 

As her career blossomed, Evelyn played dramatic characters and was known for her versatility. 

In between her films, Evelyn joined The Lafayette Players, a Black theatrical stock company. Since theaters were segregated by law in the South and by practice in the North, the Lafayette Players brought traditional theater to Black audiences throughout the US. She married her second husband, fellow actor Edward Thompson, while on tour.

In 1921, Evelyn performed in The Chip Woman’s Fortune, the first drama written by a Black playwright to appear on Broadway. The show only ran for two weeks, but W.E.B. DuBois said that “dramatically and spiritually it was one of the greatest successes this country has ever seen.” 

In 1926, Evelyn landed a role in the successful Broadway production of Lulu Belle. She understudied and played the role of a Harlem prostitute. She then appeared in the West Coast revival of Sadie Thompson, where her performance garnered critical acclaim.

In addition to being a talented actor, Evelyn was a gifted vocalist. She thrived in cabaret and musical theater, and was occasionally accompanied by a young Duke Ellington and Red Nichols.

Evelyn starred in 16 films. She easily transitioned from silent films to talkies in the 1930 musical Georgia Rose—which was about a Black family migrating north.

In 1931, Evelyn performed in the film Ladies of the Big House alongside Sylvia Sidney, who was one of the most famous entertainers at the time. Her final role was in Blonde Venus, which starred Marlene Dietrich and Cary Grant. Evelyn’s performance was uncredited. 

Evelyn refused the roles that attempted to typecast her, and instead, continued acting in challenging roles that many Black actors at the time were not permitted to play. 

In early 1932, Evelyn gave birth to her daughter, Edeve. Evelyn suffered postpartum complications and soon after died of double pneumonia. She was 36 years old. 

Though her career ended prematurely, Evelyn left her mark on Hollywood and history. She is remembered as a pioneering actor and singer.

Tune in tomorrow for the story of another Leading Lady. 

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Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!