Jessi Coles Grayson Credit: Public Domain photo

In a recent issue of Cineaste, the film review publication, Jessie Coles Grayson was mentioned in a story about Bette Davis. It was another new name for me and my curiosity was fueled when I learned that Grayson appeared in a number of classic films, including The Little Foxes and Cass Timberlane. Who was this actress, singer, and activist?

She was born on March 7, 1886, in Albia, Iowa, a small town in the southern part of the state. From the age of 8, she lived in Los Angeles, and not much is known about her early years. After her marriage to Garner Van Grayson, they moved to Portland, Oregon, with their daughter. In Portland, she studied voice with William Belcher. This experience proved rewarding and she was soon performing as a contralto on stage and radio during the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1929, she was promoted as “Portland’s Famous Contralto” before a concert performance in Seattle. According to a review in a local paper, “Mrs. Grayson proved herself an artist in every sense of the word. She is a master of contralto voice which she uses effectively and without exaggeration.”

The stage and radio were just a portion of her activities, which included her participation in civic organizations. In 1928, she was elected a secretary of the National Association of Colored Women, and she was on the Portland committee of the NAACP. She was also associated with the YWCA in California, and in 1944, she was named “Outstanding Woman of 1943” by the Xi Alpha chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority in Pittsburgh.

Grayson also found time to pursue her hobby of collecting rare American pottery.

These endeavors, however, were often overshadowed by her film career, which began in 1939 in the all-Black film One Dark Night, intended as an African American version of the Hardy films. In The Little Foxes, with Davis, she was cast as Addie, a role she got via a phone call to the casting director, who was so taken with her voice that he arranged a screen test for her. She was given the role, competing against a number of seasoned performers. As Addie, she portrayed “a wise aristocratic” servant who dominated the film in many scenes.

She was equally compelling in Syncopation, this time closer to her metier as a blues-singing servant in 1942, whose young son is a musical prodigy. According to a review in this paper, her role was not that of an “Aunt Dinah” and was perceived as a move away from the limiting stereotypical roles for African Americans. Even so, one reviewer wrote that the best acting in the film that otherwise disappointed was from the African American actors, including Grayson, noting, “They play naturally in settings that seem authentic. If the rest of Syncopation reached their level the [movie theater] might have had something to shout about.”

There apparently was something to at least exclaim in her next film, Cass Timberlane. Ebony magazine and the 1948 edition of Negro Who’s Who in California both noted that “the Negro maid [is] called for the first time on screen ‘Mrs. Higby.’” The Pittsburgh Courier quoted the director, George Sidney, as saying, “I think six years ago we would have cast a comedy performer in it. But the war has made us more conscious...more aware that Negro comic and mammy roles, like Jewish comics and Italian pushcart peddlers, have become unfair, dangerous symbols. So...we wanted a normal, intelligent character actress…’ hence Mrs. Grayson.”

When Deep Are the Roots by Arnaud d’Usseau and James Gow began its four-state touring production, Grayson was cast in the role of Bella Charles, the terrified mother of an African American veteran. A Chicago review once again singled her out as one of the best roles in the play. She reprised the role in the San Francisco and Los Angeles productions in 1948. (Readers may recall that the play’s title was Gordon Heath’s memoir, and the profile we did of him many years ago. In fact, he played the lead role with Evelyn Ellis as his mother, who was succeeded by Grayson.)

Like many other Black actors and actresses, Grayson had a number of uncredited roles in films, mainly as a maid or housekeeper.

Grayson was 66 when she died on February 27, 1953, in Los Angeles. Further research failed to disclose what happened to her two children.

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