While Gertrude Hadley Jeannette was working as a rare woman cab driver in New York in the 1940s, her male coworkers were against her employment. On her first day on the job, she had pulled up in front of a hotel in Manhattan looking for a fare when she was cut off by other cab drivers.
In those days, Black drivers were not allowed to work downtown so her male colleagues started hurling insults at her, telling her she was not supposed to be there. But she remained calm until a driver in a green checker cab cut in front of her.
“I rammed my fender under his fender, swung it over to the right and ripped it!” she recalled in 2011 during a ceremony at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem to honor her. She said when the driver became angry, she yelled from her car, “You tried to cut in front of me! I couldn’t stop.”
The angry driver, who was surprised by her feminine voice, yelled, “A woman driver! A woman driver!” Jeanette was later reprimanded by an inspector, however, she left with her very first customer.
Jeanette, who had been the first woman to get a license to drive a motorcycle in New York City, would take a speech class to correct a stuttering problem and eventually become a playwright, producer, director, and actress with roles on Broadway while being involved in the civil rights movement. But the theater legend, who passed away in 2018 at the age of 103, once said she had never wanted to act; she was pushed into the field.
Born in Urbana, Ark. on November 28, 1914, to Willis Lawrence Hadley and Salley Gertrude Crawford Hadley, Jeanette grew up on a farm with five brothers and one sister. She moved with her family to Little Rock, Ark., during the Depression and enrolled at Dunbar High School.
It was during her prom night that she met her future husband, Joe Jeannette, a heavyweight prizefighter who was 35 years older than she was, and who had come to town from New York. The two eloped in 1933 to New York City. Joe Jeanette was then the president of the Harlem Dusters, a motorcycle club, and he taught his wife Jeanette how to ride a motorcycle.
In 1935, Jeanette got her motorcycle license and in that same year, she gave birth to her only son, Robert. Jeanette and her husband were also involved in the civil rights movement. In 1949 when American singer, actor, and political activist Paul Robeson came to New York City to deliver a speech, Jeanette’s husband served as one of his bodyguards.
In an interview, Jeannette recalled Robeson’s visit as the first time she saw the white supremacist terrorist hate group the Ku Klux Klan: “They came out to lynch Paul Robeson. And I said, ‘Oh my god.’ I said, ‘I lived in the South all my life and I never heard of this…Ku Klux Klan.’ This is the first time I saw the robes and everything. So my husband said, ‘Get to the motorcycle! Get to the motorcycle!’ And then we rushed Robeson out of there. And all the motorcycles cranked up and…got him out of there.” That incident became known as the Peekskill Riots.
Earlier in 1942, after Jeannette had received a license to drive a motorcycle in New York City, she responded to a taxicab shortage by becoming a cab driver. She said she saw an ad in a newspaper looking for women drivers to replace the male cab drivers who had been drafted into World War II.
“Women were going into plants and everything else, taking over jobs,” Jeannette, who learned how to drive a Chrysler truck at the age of 13 in Arkansas, recalled in an interview in 2005. “I said, well, I know one thing — I can drive a car.”
“Thirty-two of us took the test and only two of us passed. But the other girl didn’t get her license because she had citations on her driver’s license. And so I, I was the first.”
Jeanette got her hack license in 1942 and became a cab driver. Some sources list her as the first woman to drive a cab in New York City, but Wilma K. Russey was actually the first — in 1915.
While driving, Jeannette also took bookkeeping classes at Abyssinian Baptist Church aside from her speech classes at the American Negro Theatre. Acting instruction was part of the curriculum in her speech class, and that was how she took up acting. In her speech class, she studied alongside actors like Ruby Dee, Sidney Poiter, and Ossie Davis. And in 1945 when she began her acting career, she landed a lead role in the play Our Town. Five years later, she performed in This Way Forward, which was the first play she wrote, portraying the life of sharecropping families in the South.
Jeannette also replaced Pearl Bailey in God’s Trombones, appearing alongside Fred O’Neil. She went on to hold roles in Broadway plays such as Lost in the Stars, Amen Corner, and The Great White Hope. She also directed, produced, and wrote her own plays, as well as the works of other playwrights. Shaft, Black Girl, and Cotton Comes to Harlem are some of her film credits. She said in an interview that she started writing plays after realizing the lack of “authentic black characters” on the stage. Her writings also often centered on strong women.
During the Red Scare of the 1950s — when many Americans feared that foreign communist agents were attempting to infiltrate the government — Jeanette was blacklisted because of her friendship with Robeson. But that inspired her to found the HADLEY Players (Harlem Artists Development League Especially for You) in Harlem in 1979. The aim of the theatrical company was to culturally enrich the community while helping to develop the talent and theatrical skills of its residents.
Jeannette had a seventy-year career in movies, television and the theater, and was a member of the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame. Affectionately known as Ms. “J” or Ms. “G”, she had many opportunities to go to Hollywood, but she always stayed in Harlem just to make sure the community had top-notch theater, Ward Nixon, who was H.A.D.L.E.Y. Players’ artistic director, was quoted by The New York Times.
Before her death, Jeanette remained active in the New York Theater scene, receiving several accolades including the Outstanding Pioneer Award from Audelco in 1984 and the 1992 Harlem Business Recognition Award from the Manhattan Section of the National Council of Negro Women. In 2002, she received the prestigious Paul Robeson Award from the Actors’ Equity Association.