Our Arklahoma Heritage: Fort Smith born Ernest Whitman was a black pioneer as a Hollywood actor
The American classic movie "Gone With the Wind" was an epic story of romance set against the backdrop of the American Civil War and broke box-office records and swept the boards at the 1939 Academy Awards.
The sweeping production featured a cast of "hundred's" when you consider all the actors and extras that toiled on the movie under director Victor Fleming, but in the official on-screen credits only 109 names were listed.
In most information about the movie, the cast list is enumerated in order of apperance on the screen. If you count down from the top of the credits to the 62nd spot, you'll find the name of a Fort Smith born African-American actor who had a thriving career in vaudeville, on Broadway and in the early days of Hollywood from 1934-1952.
Ernest R. Whitman was born February 21, 1893. In the city of Fort Smith, the turn of the nineteenth century marked a period of booming growth in the late 1880s and early 1990's in which the population nearly tripled, commercial trading expanded, and Garrison Avenue became the wholesale and retail center of the region.
But the black communities were limited in geographic and poplulation scope. It is speculated that Whitman may have been born in the area along North 7th Street near where the Lincoln Youth Center stands today. Others say he may have been born in the area known as Coke Hill that existed on the western edge of the city border near the Arkansas River.
Very little is known about Whitman before he emerged as a Broadway player sometime around 1930 and a cursory look at the 1900 Senbastian County census does not reveal an African- American family by the name of Whitman located in Fort Smith, leading to more speculation the family had left the area and possibly moved to California between 1893 and 1900.
Whitman was educated at the Tuskegee Institute and was ordained as a minister in 1907. Sometime during that period he wound up in Oklahoma City and his participation in Chautauqua shows led to his becoming an entertainer in vaudeville.
By 1930, Whitman was a veteran of black vaudeville, burlesque and revues. His first film was the 1934 Vitaphone short "King for a Day" with Bill Robinson and Dusty Fletcher.
John Ford cast him in The Prisoner of Shark Island in 1936, and from here came a stream of steady Hollywood work ranging from walk-ons to quite substantial roles.
Other important films featuring Whitman included The Green Pastures (1936), Jesse James (1939) and its sequel The Return of Frank James (1940), and Cabin in the Sky (1945).
Othermovie credits included a small role in Gone With the Wind (1939), Third Finger, Left Hand (1940), Among the Living (1941), Road to Zanzibar (1941), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Stormy Weather (1943), The Lost Weekend (1945), My Brother Talks to Horses (1947), Banjo (1947) and The Sun Shines Bright (1953), his last movie.
Whitman also performed on stage, including his role in The Last Mile and various other productions.
Whitman was the wartime host of the Armed Forces Radio Service Jubilee radio show which was designed for African-American troops and featured mostly African-American entertainers.
He portrayed the character Bill Jackson in The Beulah Show on radio from 1952 to 1953.
From his move debut in 1936 until he played his final role in "The Sun Shines Bright" Whitman had roles in eighteen different movies.
His entire filmography includes:
The Sun Shines Bright
Uncle Pleasant Woodford
My Brother Talks to Horses
The Lost Weekend
[black man talking to himself]
Cabin in the Sky
The Pittsburgh Kid
Road to Zanzibar
The Return of Frank James
Tell No Tales
Gone with the Wind
[the carpetbagger's friend]
[policeman with Mrs Walker]
The Prisoner of Shark Island
Buckland Montmorency 'Buck' Tilford
The Green Pastures
Whitman died August 5, 1954 at his home in Hollywood of complications from a liver condition and a blood disorder and was laid to rest at the Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angles.
The cemetery is the final resting placs of dozens of politiciians, celebrities and other notables from the Golden Age of California.