We regret that we haven’t yet turned up information on the earliest years of pathbreaking African American screen actor George H. Reed (1866-1952). Reed was one of the few genuine black actors in Hollywood during the silent days; whites in blackface was the predominant method of portrayal in those benighted times. Since Reed was around 50 years old at the time of his screen debut, it seems reasonable to surmise that he’d spent years on stage, perhaps in black vaudeville or minstrelsy, but I’ve not yet uncovered any references. He was originally from Macon, Georgia.
Reed may have appeared in the now lost all-black The Realization of a Negro’s Ambition (1916), by Harry A. Gant and the LIncoln Motion Picture Company. All agree that his first confirmed role is that of Jim in the 1920 version of Huckleberry Finn, directed by the ill-fated William Desmond Taylor. It was widely touted as the first movie version of Mark Twain’s book to star of actual young people; it may have been in the same spirit of realism that a real African American was cast.
Naturally it wasn’t ever going to get better for Reed than a co-starring part in a major Hollywood film. For most of his remaining career he was relegated to bit parts, normally as stereotyped menials and servants of one kind or another. Ben Model wrote this terrific essay about his appearance in Douglas MacLean’s One a Minute, which came out in 1921. His nearly 150 credits also include roles in John Ford’s Cameo Kirby (1923, featuring Jean Arthur in her first role), William Wellman’s The Vagabond Trail (1925), Willard Mack’s The Noose (1928), They Learned About Women (1930) with Van and Schenck, Montana Moon (1930), What Price Hollywood? (1932), Twentieth Century (1934), Judge Priest (1934) with Will Rogers, Belle of the Nineties (1934) with Mae West, Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch (1934) with W.C. Fields (and also its 1942 remake), Diamond Jim (1935), The Viginia Judge (1935) with Walter C. Kelly, Show Boat (1936), The Green Pastures (1936), Anthony Adverse (1936), O Susanna! (1936), Saratoga (1937), Kentucky (1938), Swannee River (1939), Maryland (1940), Belle Starr (1941), They Died With Their Boots On (1941), Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind (1942), In This Our Life (1942), Tales of Manhattan (1942), Dixie (1943) and the 1945 serial Jungle Queen. He was also in most of the Dr. Kildare films, culminating with Dark Delusion (1947), his final screen appearance.
For more on early film history, see: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.