Playwright, actor, and activist Gertrude Jeanette died in her Harlem home April 4, 2018 at the age of 103.
An Arkansas native, she moved to New York City in 1934 where she became the first female to hold a motorcycle license the following year. In 1942 when the city was searching for taxi drivers to replace those who were drafted, Jeanette became New York’s first female taxi driver.
She took the money she earned and took acting and theater classes where some of her classmates included Ruby Dee, Sidney Portier, and Ossie Davis.
Gertrude made her Broadway debut in 1949 where she was one of the original performers in the musical tragedy “Lost in the Stars”. She was also in the original productions of “The Long Dream”, “Nobody Loves an Albatross”, “The Amen Corner”, and “Vieux Carre”. She also appeared in the revival of “The Skin of Our Teeth”.
A career that lasted over 70 years, Gertrude made her Hollywood debut in 1964 with an episode of “The Defenders”. She also appeared in “Nothing But a Man”, “Cotton Comes to Harlem”, “Shaft”, “The Legend of N****r Charley”, and “Black Girl”.
Gertrude began writing when she discovered a lack of authentic roles and characters for women of colour.
Looking to offer young artists an opportunity to have a place to develop their craft, she created H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players (Harlem Artists Development League Especially for You) in 1979.
A Southern girl, she had her first encounter with members of the Klu Klux Klan when her husband served as a bodyguard for Paul Robeson. The Klan had come to lynch Robeson.
Her accomplishments include membership into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, the Outstanding Pioneer Award, the Personality of the Year Award from the Black American Newspaper, the Harlem business Recognition Award from the Manhattan Section of the National Council of Negro Women, as a Living Legend by the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem, the Lionel Hampton Legacy Award, and the Actors’ Equity Association’s Paul Robeson Award.
She was born Gertrude Hadley in Urbana, Arkansas on November 28, 1914.
She was predeceased by her heavyweight prizefighter husband Joe Jeanette – who was 35 years older – and their son who died when he was only five. She is survived by many nieces and nephews.
feature photo taken from Faceboook page.