Francine Everett: The Most Beautiful Woman in Harlem

Francine Everett (1915-1999), was briefly one of the biggest stars of race films in the U.S.  While her time in the spotlight was short, she rose about as high as anyone could given the prejudices of the times.

Born Francine Williamson in Louisburg, North Carolina, she migrated to Harlem with her family in her youth. She was still a teenager she was already dancing as a chorus girl in Harlem night spots like the Savoy Ballroom and Small’s Paradise. Her surname comes from her first husband Booker Everett, whom she married before she had attained majority. I have seen conflicting reports as to whether he died or the marriage was dissolved. By age 18 (1933) she was singing with a group called the Four Black Cats in Harlem nightclubs.

In 1936 she began working with the brand new Negro Theatre Unit of New York City, a program of the Federal Theatre Project. While performing there that first year she met and married Rex Ingram, soon to be a well-known stage and screen star. The pair moved to Hollywood where Ingram starred in the all black film The Green Pastures, which also featured Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Oscar Polk, Ida Forsyne, Ernest Whitman, Willie Best, Clarence Muse and many other notable African American performers. Everett would likely have been cast herself, but she declined to participate in what she deemed to be a stereotyped production, a criticism of the movie many have shared over the years. It was based on the eponymous Pulitzer Prize winning play by Marc Connelly. 

In 1939 Ingram and Everett divorced and the latter returned to Harlem, where she modeled, sang in nightclubs, and starred in independent African American films. It was during these years that a writer for the Amsterdam News called her “the Most Beautiful Woman in Harlem” — and the photographic record certainly supports that claim! Her role was a supporting one in the 1939 boxing picture Keep Punching starring champion pugilist Henry Armstrong, and also featuring Canada Lee, Dooley Wilson, Edna Mae Harris, Hamtree Harrington, and Rosamond Johnson, who co-wrote the script. Her next was Paradise in Harlem (1939) with Harris and Frank H. Wilson (who’d both been in The Green Pastures) and Mamie Smith. Next came several musical shorts: Toot That Trumpet (1941), Babbling Bess (1943), Stars on Parade (1944), Big Timers (1945, with Stepin Fetchit), Stars on Parade (1946), and Tall, Tan and Terrific (1946, with Mantan Moreland). Next came the film she is best known for today, and her only starring feature, Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946).

From 1940 through 1946 she also sang in over four dozen “soundies”, musical shorts that were shown on machines called Panorams which were an interesting cross between a jukebox and a kinetoscope. Clips from these were included in the 1947 theatrical release Ebony Parade, along with segments with Cab Calloway, Dorothy Dandridge, Count Basie and others.

Following this she appeared in only two additional films, Lost Boundaries (1949) and No Way Out (1950). These were major Hollywood movies, but she was cast only as an extra. She retired from performing after this, and was a clerk in a hospital for many years, although she continued to make personal appearances at screenings and panels when her films were rediscovered in later years.