Leigh Whipper

The Negro Actor’s Guild was real also, and it was founded in 1937 with the intention of ending the stereotyping of African Americans in theatre and film, as well as stressing the need for more realistic depictions of African American life on screen. The organization also sought health care, transportation, and hotel accommodations, and financed funeral arrangements for the African American thespian community. Noted members of the Negro Actor’s Guild include Fredi Washington, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Leigh Whipper, Noble Sissle, W.C. Handy, Dick Campbell, Hattie McDaniel, Ethel Waters, Lena Horne, and Bert Williams (Negro Actors Guild of America).”


Leigh Whipper while making the film, “The Oxbow Incident.” Photo courtesy of Carole Ione Lewis

“Leigh Whipper as Sparks is often the most haunting; it wasn’t very often at that period of time that a Black man was portrayed as the sage voice of reason. Leigh’s story is a fascinating one: Born in South Carolina in 1876, at the end of the Reconstruction Era in which his parents had participated, he was educated in D.C., attended Howard University, before turning permanently to life in the theater.”


“I’ll always remember him singing a gospel hymn in an almost comedic yet stark rhythm once the mob hung the three innocent men, the lyrics are equally as haunting, You got to go before your Maker, you got to go there by yourself. Nobody here can go there for you, you got to go here by yourself.”


Whipper, who has been credited with being the first Black member of Actors Equity and the founder of the Negro Actors Guild, had done much better on Broadway, where he starred in the 1929 revival of Porgy, wrote and starred in the short-lived Yeah Man (1932), and originated the part of Crooks in Of Mice and Men (1937), a role that he re-created in the 1939 screen version. Arguably the finest African-American actor of his generation — and one of the finest performers in the history of American theater — Leigh Whipper was awarded the prestigious Oscar Micheaux Award in 1974. In the 1990s, The Philadelphia International Film Festival instituted an award in his honor.” ~ Hans J. Wollstein, Rovi


Leighla Frances Whipper, author, songwriter, and restaurateur, was born on September 22, 1913, in Athens, Georgia.  She died in May of 2008 in Kingston, New York. Georgia was born into a prestigious family that encompassed the wide-ranging areas of literature, theater, medicine, and social activism. Leighla was the daughter of the noted Hollywood actor Leigh Whipper and Virginia Eva Wheeler, a talented dancer in the chorus lines of Harlem in the 1920s and 1930s. She was the niece of Dr. Ionia Rollin Whipper, founder of the Ionia Rollin Whipper Home in Washington, DC.

Directed by EWING SCOTT


Mr. Whipper retired from the screen and stage in 1972 and settled in Harlem, New York, where he died in 1975 at the age of 98.


In 1901, a former slave told the actor Leigh Whipper: “Us slaves watched white folks’ parties where the guests danced the minuet’ and then paraded in a grand march, with the ladies and gentlemen going different ways and then meeting again, arm in arm, and marching down the center together. Then we’d do it too, but we used to mock ’em every step. Sometimes the white folks noticed it, but they seemed to like it; I guess they thought we couldn’t dance any better” (Malone 18).


*The first Black member of the Actors’ Equity Association (1913).

*Mr. Whipper’s first Broadway appearance was in Georgia Minstrels.

*He appeared next in the classical Broadway productions of Stevedore, Of Mice and Men, Lysistrata and Porgy.

*Mr. Whipper achieved national fame for his characterization of the Crabman of the Catfish Row in Porgy.

*He made his film debut as a bit player in Oscar Micheaux’s silent race films, Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) and Within Our Gates(1920).

*He later starred in the Hollywood films Of Mice and Men (1939), and The Oxbow Incident (1943).

*He maintained lifelong activity as a member of the Actors Equity Association (1913), American Federation of Radio Artists (1937), and the Screen Actors Guild (1933).

*He was a founding member of the Negro Actors Guild of America (1937).



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1939 Winter. Paints Academy Award nominee Leigh Whipper (1876-1975), posing him as if he’s in a Paris cafe. Dans un Café à Paris (Leigh Whipper) 1939 (oil on canvas, collection of E. Thomas Williams Jr. and Audlyn Higgins Williams). On May 22, 2009, The Wall Street Journal quoted, “Mr. Williams, a retired banker and real estate investor, strolled through his Manhattan apartment and stopped in front of the jewel of his collection, a smoky-hued portrait of a man in a fedora (Leigh Whipper) by Loïs Mailou Jones. The painting is appraised at $150,000.00, but he says he would happily donate it to the White House permanent collection.” Loïs considered it one of her best works and it was later shown in a Paris exhibit. Whipper was a friend of Jacob Lawrence and told her in a letter that Jake was carried away with her comment about his work. Whipper was a graduate of Howard Law School but preferred acting. He wrote in her guest book: “To the #1 Negro artist (Loïs Jones) who will someday be America’s #1 artist.”

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