BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) – For decades, Lynn Whitfield has graced our screens. From television to film, she is as much a treasured name as the iconic characters she’s portrayed. Her favorite role is being Baton Rouge PROUD.
“Everybody in Baton Rouge knew who you’re mother was your grandfather was… there was such a sense of community, and that was… really something that I miss to this day” Whitfield said. “In fact I don’t think I was as social as I was as when I was growing up in Baton Rouge”.
“My father Dr. Valerian Smith having the Easter sunrise service on the Capitol steps… the state Capitol steps of Louisiana. That meant so much …that always meant so much to me” she recalled.
Today the south Baton Rouge neighborhood which fostered Lynn’s sense of community looks very different. Dilapidated buildings and abandoned storefronts masks the rich history that lies beneath.
“It is a beautiful neighborhood” Whitfield recalled. “Something happens when you put a freeway… when I was born there wasn’t a freeway on the end. It separated one end of Terrace Street from the other and there’s a distinctive difference when you go several blocks over” she said.
“Energy and money needs to be put back into the community that can service the community… and to seek out those pillars of the community that are important and reinstate so much of it” she said.
Pillars like Lynn’s grandfather, Dr. Leo S. Butler, one of Louisiana’s first Black high school graduates and one of the first Black doctors in Baton Rouge. Her parents were also trailblazers; her father Valerian was a dentist and arts enthusiast, founding the Baton Rouge Community Chorus in 1952. Her mom Valeria Jean is a former President of the Louisiana Housing Authority. They were living examples of Black excellence for Lynn and her siblings.
“In my family there was a sense of being high achievers, good work ethic and also a sense of responsibility and a sense that service was important” she said.
That excellence continued at Howard University, where generations of Lynn’s family members had also attended.
“While I was at Howard in the drama department… to know that Donnie Hathaway and Roberta flack had studied above me…Debbie Allen and Phylicia had come through… there was a renaissance” Whitfiled said. “It nurtured my identity as a Black woman in the world and then they gave me great training; but aside from that it built my backbone. The capstone of black education”!
From Howard, all the world was her stage and she became a big player. From her EMMY and Golden Globe winning portrayal of Josephine Baker, to starring alongside Martin Lawrence in ‘A Thin Line Between Love and Hate’. Just last month she was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for her role as Lady Mae in OWN’s hit drama ‘Greenleaf’.
“I like all of my women…” Whitfield said. “I think that through sharing a characters humanity through their life circumstance- it can be cautionary, aspirational or inspirational… what I set out to do is to create an honest clear character understanding for me that human beings aren’t simplistic. I always try to present a dimensional human being” she said.
“Sometimes it’s a lonely business out there, but when I know that my hometown people, Baton Rouge will love me and support me and be there through the good and the bad and I can’t tell you how much you’ve given me all these years and I appreciate it” Whitfield said.