Certainly, the most prominent part played by an African-American was the role of Black Mose in Beggars of Life. Black Mose was played by Edgar "Blue" Washington (1898 – 1970). Unusually so, Washington received sixth billing, and his name appeared on the screen alongside stars Wallace Beery, Louise Brooks, Richard Arlen, Robert Perry and Roscoe Karns. Throughout his long film career, Washington appeared mostly in bit parts. Beggars of Life marked a high point.
Washington was an actor (sometimes credited as Edgar Washington and sometimes Blue Washington) as well as a one-time Los Angeles prizefighter and Negro League baseball player. He appeared in 74 films between 1919 and 1961. In between acting jobs, he was also an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. The nickname "Blue" came from director Frank Capra, a friend.
Washington was born in Los Angeles. Before getting into acting, he played for various teams in the Negro League. He was a pitcher for the Chicago American Giants starting in 1916. And in 1920, he was invited to join the newly formed Kansas City Monarchs, where he started at first base and batted .275 in 24 official league games. After a few months of barnstorming, Washington left the Monarchs. In December of 1920, after he had started acting, Washington rejoined the Los Angeles White Sox for a few games; he was also believed to have later played for Alexander’s Giants in the integrated California Winter League.
Harold Lloyd helped Washington break into films, and this pioneering African-American actor appeared in the legendary comedian’s Haunted Spooks (1920) and Welcome Danger (1929). Sporadic work followed throughout the 1920s, as Washington appeared in movies alongside early stars Ricardo Cortez, William Haines, Richard Barthelmess, Ken Maynard, and Tim McCoy.
Beggars of Life director William Wellman worked once gain with Washington in The Light That Failed (1939). The actor also appeared in a few films helmed by John Ford, including The Whole Town's Talking (1935) and The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). Other notable movies in which Washington had at least a small part include the Charley Bower’s short There It Is (1928), King Vidor's all-black Hallelujah (1929), Rio Rita (1929), Mary Pickford's Kiki (1931), King Kong (1933), Roman Scandals (1933), Annie Oakley (1935), Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman (1936), and Gone with the Wind (1939).
He was in three installments in the Charlie Chan series, and appears as Clarence the comic sidekick in the John Wayne B-Western Haunted Gold (1933).
Despite the fair amount of screen time Washington enjoyed in this rather poor, 57 minute film, he is only named in this trailer.
Washington also had small roles in The Cohens and the Kellys in Africa (1930), Drums of the Congo (1942), Bomba, the Jungle Boy (1949), and other lesser fair. Unfortunately, many of these and earlier roles traded on racial stereotypes. His last part, as a limping attendant in a billiards hall, was in the classic Paul Newman film, The Hustler (1961).
This blog is indebted to Mark V. Perkins excellent biography on the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) website. Give it a read.