Gertrude Jeannette, 1914-2018

  • Gertrude-Jeannette-WWP

Woman Category: Arts and Theater & CinemaWoman Tags: Actress, Director, NYC Women, Playwright, and Producer

  • HerStory

    A Playwright, director, producer, and actress. The first woman in NYC to have a license to drive a motorcycle, the first woman in NYC to have a taxi driver’s license, and the first African-American actress to appear on National Television.

    Gertrude Jeannette was born in Urbana, Arkansas, where she grew up on a farm with her six siblings. During the Great Depression, the family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas. She attended the segregated Dunbar High School and planned to enroll at Fisk University. On her prom night, she met Joe Jeannette, who was 35 years older than her, and just before her graduation, the couple eloped to NYC. There, Jeannette became involved in the civil rights movement.
    Jeannette’s husband, a heavyweight boxer and the president of the Harlem Dusters motorcycle club taught her how to drive a motorcycle. In 1935, she became the first woman in NYC to have a motorcycle license. During WW2, the city had a shortage of taxi drivers, Jeannette took the call, and in 1942, at the age of 28, she passed the cab driver’s test and became the first woman in NYC to have a taxi driver license. With her new income, Jeannette wanted to further her education, and while attending bookkeeping classes, she took a speech class at the American Negro Theatre to correct her stammer. As part of the theater’s curriculum, Jeannette was obliged to take an acting class, which changed the course of her life.
    At 31, Jeannette began her acting career, landing her first lead role in the play “Our Town,” and four years later, she performed in her first Broadway production – “Lost in the Stars.” Jeannette saw the lack of authentic black characters in the theater, so she started to write her plays. Her first production, “The Way Forward,” premiered in 1950. In this autobiographical play, Jeannette depicted the life of the sharecroppers in the South. As in her other plays, she presented strong African-American characters and dealt with topics such as racism, education, politics, and family issues. In the same year, Jeannette was featured in the TV Hour production of the “God’s Trombones,” adding another first to her list as the first African-American actress to appear on National Television. Jeannette continued to appear in various Broadway productions, films, and TV shows. Her credits include titles such as “Nothing but a Man,” “Cotton Comes to Harlem,” “Shaft,” and “Black Girl.”
    In 1979, Jeannette founded the H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players (Harlem Artist’s Development League Especially for You), a theater company, which gave artists a place to develop their skills, enriching the cultural life in Harlem. Jeannette acted, directed, and wrote until her retirement at the age of 98. She died at her home in Harlem at the age of 103.

    “I’ve never been a star, but I was never in a play where the critics didn’t mention me.”

    “I’ve never been a star, but I was never in a play where the critics didn’t mention me.”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She learned how to drive a Chrysler truck at the age of 13.
    • At the American Negro Theater, she studied alongside Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.
    • In 1949, she and her husband rescued the singer, actor, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson from a Ku Klux Klan lynch attempt.
    • In the 1950s, she was blacklisted because of her connection to Paul Robeson.
    • Her experience as a cab driver provided her with writing materials for her plays.
    • In Harlem, she was known as Ms. “J” or Ms. “G.”
    • She had one son, who passed away at the age of 5.
  • More About Her Legacy

    * ACDelco's Outstanding Pioneer Award (1984)
    * Harlem Business Recognition Award from the Manhattan Section of the National Council of Negro Women (1992)
    * Lionel Hampton Legacy Award (1998)
    * Inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame (1999)
    * Paul Robeson Award from the Actors’ Equity Association (2002)

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • A Good Life - Gertrude Jeanette

    A short documentary about legendary black theater actress Gertrude Jeanette (November 28, 1914 – April 4, 2018).

    © New Heritage Films

  • Jeannette portrait by Alex, Asher Daniel. On display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Photo credit - WWP team