Retrobituaries: Lincoln Perry, the First African American Movie Star

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Getty Images

Before the likes of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington, successful African American actors were hard to find in Hollywood. Lincoln Perry (1902-1985) is often credited as the world’s first African American movie star. Using the stage name Stepin Fetchit, he is also said to be the first Black actor to become a millionaire.

Born in Key West, Florida, Perry had a Jamaican father and Bahamian mother. His father, Joseph Perry, was a cigar wrapper and cook who sometimes sang and danced in minstrel shows. His mother, a devout Catholic, worked as a seamstress for a dentist’s family. As a young teenager, Perry sang and tap danced as a tent-show performer, traveling around the US with carnivals and medicine shows. In his twenties, Perry performed in Black vaudeville shows as one-half of a duo called “Step and Fetch It” (although he also claimed to have taken the name "Stepin Fetchit” from a racehorse). After he came to Los Angeles in the 1920s, a talent scout for Fox Studios offered him a screen test, which proved successful.

During his career, Perry appeared in more than 40 movies, such as 1929’s Hearts In Dixie, 1930’s A Tough Winter, and 1934’s Judge Priest. In one of his early roles, 1927’s silent film In Old Kentucky, Perry won audiences over by providing comic relief. He got a contract with Fox to appear in the studio’s films as a featured player. Credited as Stepin Fetchit, Perry pretended to be “The Laziest Man On Earth” (or sometimes “The Laziest Man In The World”) to make audiences laugh, and he played a similar character in multiple films.

Perry’s peak of fame and fortune was in the 1930s, when he became a millionaire. Newspapers, magazines, and tabloids featured articles on Perry and his extravagant lifestyle. He reportedly owned a dozen cars (including a pink Cadillac with his name in neon lights), wore expensive cashmere suits, and had 16 servants and chauffeurs. He also attended Hollywood parties with celebrities such as Will Rogers, John Wayne, Mae West, Shirley Temple and, later, Muhammad Ali.

Beginning in the 1930s, though, Americans (Black and White) and civil rights leaders harshly condemned Perry’s portrayals. Because he frequently played lazy, illiterate characters—often an aloof, slow, confused man with drooping eyes and rambling, incoherent speech—Perry was called out for promoting racist stereotypes. Criticized as a buffoon, an embarrassment, and a degrading caricature, Perry’s characters were seen as perpetuating the contemporary racist ideas of Black people as lazy, dumb, and unsophisticated.

At the time, the NAACP was working to get film studios to give equal pay and billing to Black and White actors, and to stop portraying Black people negatively. Perry tried to get equal pay and billing from Fox, but failed, and quit Hollywood by 1940. In 1947, he was bankrupt. His acting work was sporadic in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He died in 1985 in Los Angeles, at a hospital for members of the motion picture and television industry. 

Although many members of the Black community have viewed Perry’s contributions to cinema negatively, some of them take a more nuanced view. Jimmie Walker, a black comedian, said that he doesn’t think Stephin Fetchit is all bad. According to Walker, Perry created a funny character that actually functions as a subversive trickster. In films, Perry’s character would often outsmart White characters by pretending to be incompetent so that the White people would get impatient and end up doing the work themselves. Black film critic Mel Watkins has said that African Americans understood that Perry’s character had its origins in slaves resisting work, and found the humor in it.  

Because Perry was billed as Stepin Fetchit rather than as Lincoln Perry, audiences had a difficult time separating the actor from his character. In a 1968 interview, Fetchit said, “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.” Far from being lazy or stupid himself, Perry wrote regular columns for The Chicago Defender newspaper to share his experience in Hollywood.

In 1976, Perry got a Special NAACP Image Award for his accomplishments, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame under the name Stepin Fetchit. Despite disagreements about Perry’s legacy, many agree that he opened a door for Black actors in Hollywood.

Sushruta, Ancient Indian Surgeon and Father of the Nose Job

If you were a petty criminal, a prisoner of war, or an adulterous woman in the ancient world, you might have had the tip of your nose cut off as a punishment [PDF]. But rather than walking around disfigured, if you had the means—and lived in ancient India—you might have had your nose reconstructed thanks to an ancient surgical method espoused by the Indian physician and surgeon Sushruta.

There's some debate around whether Sushruta was a real individual or a legendary figure. Said to have been the son of a sage who lived around 600 BCE, he's primarily known today for the classic treatise Sushruta Samhita, or Compendium of Sushruta. The treatise is considered one of the foremost achievements of Indian medicine, and went on to influence the West. Along with Charaka and Vagbhata—two other possibly legendary authors of key texts—Sushruta is honored in India as one of the "Triad of Ancients."

The Sushruta Samhita describes more than a thousand diseases (including a very early awareness of diabetes), and about 650 types of drugs. The text includes a special focus on surgery, which it considers the apex of the healing art. The roughly 300 surgical procedures it describes include cataract surgery, the removal of bladder stones, hernia repair, eye surgery, and Cesarean sections. The treatise also describes how to control bleeding, set broken bones, use wine and other drugs to anesthetize the patient, and employ large ants as wound clips (apparently, their strong mandibles can close a gash in lieu of stitches). The text also stresses the importance of cleanliness in both surgeons and their instruments—safeguards Europe wouldn’t adopt for the better part of two millennia.

But the most famous part of the text is its technique for repairing and recreating a nose, known today as reconstructive rhinoplasty. Sushruta recommended using a long, broad "leaf of a creeper" as a template for cutting a flap of skin from the cheek or forehead. After scarifying the flap with a knife, the skin was then placed over the missing nose, after which "the coolheaded physician should steadily tie it up with a bandage decent to look at," the text says. Two small pipes—reeds or tubes from the castor oil plant—were inserted into the nostrils to facilitate breathing. The nose was then dusted with medicinal powders, enveloped in cotton, and sprinkled with sesame oil.

An 1816 image from a nose surgery using the Indian method
An image from J.C. Carpue's "An account of two successful operations for restoring a lost nose," 1816

Sushruta’s knowledge took a long time traveling west. The Sushruta Samhita was translated into Arabic around the 8th century CE, and that version may have arrived in Europe before the Renaissance; Sushruta’s techniques were apparently known to surgeons in Italy in the 1400s and 1500s. The Indian method for repairing a nose was then lost to Western medicine for a couple of hundred years, although of course Indian surgeons continued to practice it.

Then, in 1793, two British surgeons observed the procedure being carried out on a cart driver who had been taken prisoner by a sultan in the Third Anglo-Mysore war, and an acquaintance of theirs published an account of the surgery in London's Gentleman's Magazine the following year. A British surgeon named Joseph Constantine Carpue read about the procedure, and practiced it on cadavers for 20 years before performing the operation (successfully) on a patient in 1814. His subsequent publication popularized the procedure in Europe, and by the 1830s the technique had made it to the United States.

Sushruta is widely honored in India today. The country boasts several statues of him, and his image is on the seal of the Association of Plastic Surgeons of India. A version of his procedure, often called the Indian method, is still one of the preferred ways of repairing noses around the world.

John Tradescant, Royal Gardener and Forefather of the Natural History Museum

Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
Portrait of John Tradescant the Elder, attributed to Cornelis de Neve
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Two ribs of a whale, a dragon’s egg, the hand of a mermaid, and a picture made entirely from feathers: These were just a few of the items displayed at the curiosities museum that John Tradescant the Elder opened around 1630.

Tradescant is best known for two accomplishments: being the forefather of the modern English garden, and opening the first public museum. He collected seeds and plant samples on his extensive travels, then incorporated these flowers into the envy-inspiring gardens he was hired to create for the British nobility. That would be a noteworthy accomplishment on its own, but Tradescant is also remembered for his cabinet of curiosities, which eventually grew to become the nucleus of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, England.

Not much is known about the Tradescant the Elder’s early years. Thought to have been born around 1570, he made his first mark in the historical record when he married in 1607. Two years later, he was appointed gardener to Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury. Tradescant continued to work for the Cecil family for about six years, then took a job with Edward, Lord Wotton, for another eight years. Lord Wotton released him for two major collecting journeys: one as part of a diplomatic mission to the Russian Arctic in 1618, which resulted in him introducing the larch tree, a valuable timber source, to England; and one as part of a 1621 expedition against Algerian pirates. Although the mission failed to do much about the pirates, Tradescant did succeed in bringing back samples of gladioli, wild pomegranate, and Syringa persica—better known as lilac, which became a favorite in English gardens.

Tradescant then served George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, for five years, before the duke was assassinated by a disgruntled army officer and King Charles I himself summoned Tradescant's services. The king appointed Tradescant the Keeper of his Master’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace, an estate occupied by his queen, Henrietta Maria. Tradescant would become celebrated as the gardener to the "Rose and Lily Queen."

On Tradescant's travels, he tended to favor trees and flowers that looked interesting above those with a pleasant aroma, since he had no sense of smell. From his trips to France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, he returned with tulips, anemones, irises, clematis vines, and poppies. He also began actively seeking out curiosities, such as "a goose which has grown in Scotland on a tree," and "the passion of Christ carved very daintily on a plumstone," according to one 1638 accounting of his collection. (He also collected what we might today consider more run-of-the-mill cultural artifacts, like clothing and weapons.) Aside from his own collecting, he contacted British trading ships and asked merchants and diplomats around the world to find him “All Maner of Beasts & Fowels & Birds Alyve.”

Tradescant first began displaying his collection of oddities—fondly known as The Ark—at his home in Lambeth, London in 1628. The museum was a chance for Londoners to see creatures previously unknown to them—animals like salamanders and pelicans were on view—and to touch fantastic relics, such as wood that supposedly came from the cross used in the crucifixion of Jesus. Like other cabinets of curiosity of its era, it combined scientific curiosities and mythological artifacts without strict organizing principles: A brightly colored parrot might be displayed next to a gourd, a precious coin, and some artistically arranged shells. At some point, the collection also incorporated a dodo, described in a 1656 accounting as being a “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big." (While most of the specimen was disposed of due to rot in the mid-18th century, the head—now the only soft tissue dodo specimen known to exist—and several other parts of the specimen are currently in the collection of Oxford's Museum of Natural History.)

Tradescant charged visitors sixpence to view his curiosities, which became one of London's most popular and famous attractions for nearly half a century (it was especially popular with schoolchildren). One early visitor praised it as a place "where a Man might in one daye behold and collecte into one place more curiosities than hee should see if hee spent all his life in Travell."

Although the museum was a success, it was not a full-time project. Tradescant also continued to garden for nobility until his death in 1638; his last project, undertaken a year before he died, was a Physic Garden for herbal remedies at Oxford.

Tradescant is called the "Elder" because he also had a well-known son, John Tradescant the Younger (1608–1662), who carried on his work. The younger botanist also gardened for nobles, traveled the world, and collected both plants and curiosities. In 1638, he assumed his father’s title as Keeper of his Majesty’s Gardens, Vines, and Silkworms at Oatlands Palace in Surrey. All the while he kept collecting, adding to the Tradescant legacy.

Tradescant the Younger had a son he hoped would carry on the family tradition, but his heir died at 19. Heartbroken, he deeded the collection to a friend and antiques aficionado, Elias Ashmole. It was a decision they came to regret after a variety of squabbles and a court case, which upheld Ashmole's right to the collection. Ashmole paid for and helped compile a catalog of the Tradescant objects in 1656, the first printed catalog of a museum collection in England.

Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
Detail of the Tradescant tomb St Mary-at-Lambeth, London
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Ashmole donated the Tradescant curiosities to his old school, the University of Oxford, in the 1670s, alongside some items he had acquired himself. The museum built to exhibit the whole collection officially opened in June 1683, and remains open today.

But it's not the only museum inspired by the work of the Tradescants. The church where the Tradescants (both Elder and Younger) are buried is now known as the Museum of Garden History; it was initially created to preserve the their magnificent tomb. Carved with images from their travels and collections, it incorporates a long epitaph attributed to John Aubrey that describes their curiosities as "a world of wonders in one closet shut."

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