Gertrude Jeanette, the pioneering African-American actor, director, playwright, and producer—who is also thought to be New York City’s first licensed female cab driver—died April 4 at her home in Harlem.
Born in Urbana, Arkansas, on November 28, 1914, Jeanette arrived in New York City in 1934 when she eloped with her husband, heavyweight prize fighter Joe Jeanette II.
In 1935 Jeanette became the first woman to get a motorcycle driver’s license, and in 1942—after responding to a newspaper ad seeking women to replace NYC’s drafted cab drivers—she became the first woman to get a taxi license in New York City.
Jeanette used the money she earned to take classes at the American Negro Theater, where she studied alongside Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis.
She made her Broadway debut in 1949 in the original cast of Lost in the Stars, and went on to originate roles in The Long Dream, Nobody Loves an Albatross, The Amen Corner, and in Tennessee Williams’ penultimate Broadway play, Vieux Carré.
Though she had only two lines in the play, Jeanette was influential in the creation of her character, Nursie, an African-American maid. Williams, feeling he would be unable to write authentically for a black character, sought Jeanette’s input throughout the rehearsal process.
Her career as a playwright was launched when she saw a lack of authentic black characters and stories represented on stage. “I saw parts that I knew I wouldn’t play. So I started writing about women, and strong women that I knew no one would be ashamed to play,” she said in an interview for the Foundry Theatre’s Legacies series.
In 1979 she founded H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players (Harlem Artists Development League Especially for You), which provided young artists of color a place to develop their theatrical craft.