I had never heard of Madame Sul-Te-Wan until I read Donald Bogles’s book Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. Once, I learned of her story, I was intrigued. Many of her roles were uncredited, but Madame Sul-Te-Wan persevered in Hollywood for over five decades, doing what she loved.
The mystery of Madame Sul-Te-Wan is one that has intrigued many film aficionados for decades. Madame Sul-Te-Wan is the original mystery woman of film. Born Nellie Crawford on March 7, 1873 in Louisville, Kentucky, the woman who became Madame Sul-Te-Wan was the first black actor/performer, to sign a film contract and be a featured performer.
Madame’s parents, Silas and Cleo De Lonsa were freed slaves. After, her father left the family, Cleo worked as a domestic for an actress in Louisville. When she was older, Madame moved to Cincinnati and joined a theatre company, Three Black Cloaks. At the time, she performed as Creole Nell.
Madame married a man by the name of Robert Conley and the two had three sons. When Robert abandoned the family shortly after the birth of their third son, Madame approached director D.W. Griffith about appearing in his latest film, ‘Birth of a Nation.’ The two struck up a friendship that defied convention. Griffith was very loyal to Madame and her to him. Rumors and questions circulated regarding the true nature of the relationship, but nothing illicit was ever substantiated.
After adopting the name Madame Sul-Te-Wan, she worked consistently throughout the 1910s until the 1940s. However, as a black woman in a segregated America, she was often relegated to small roles. Some speculated that she chose the name ‘Madame’ to demand the respect she knew she deserved. Because of her race and sex, Madame often played the role of domestic servant. However she appeared in many films, such as ‘The Children Pay’ (1916), “Stage Struck” (1917), ‘College’ (1927), ‘Queen Kelly’ (1929), and ‘King Kong’ (1933). Madame Sul-Te-Wan garnered critical praise for her work in the 1937 film ‘Maid of Salem.’ In the film she played the character “Tituba.”
In 1954, after over 40 years of playing domestics, Madame Sul-Te-Wan was able to break type when she was cast in ‘Carmen Jones’ opposite reel sistas Dorothy Dandridge and Olga James, as well as the legendary Harry Belafonte. In the film Madame Sul-Te-Wan played Dorothy’s grandmother, leaving many to believe that the two actresses were related in real life. They were not. Madame Sul-Te-Wan’s last screen appearance came in the 1958. She had a part in the film ‘The Buccaneer.’
On February 1, 1959, Madame Sul-Te-Wan died in Hollywood, CA. In 1986, Madame Sul-Te-Wan was inducted into The Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame.