Actress Lynn Whitfield discusses trailblazing career, Black excellence and growing up in Louisiana

Black History Month

BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — For decades, Lynn Whitfield has graced our screens. From television to film, she is as much an icon as the characters she’s portrayed.

Her favorite role is being a proud Baton Rouge native.

“Everybody in Baton Rouge knows who your mother is, your grandfather is. There was a real sense of care and community, and that was one really … something that I miss to this day,” Whitfield said. “In fact, I don’t think I was as social as I was 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 that fostered Whitfield’s sense of community looks very different. Dilapidated buildings and abandoned storefronts mask 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 as you go several blocks over,” she said.

“Energy and money need 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.

Those pillars are 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 art 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 definitely 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 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,” Whitfield 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, she became a big player — from her Emmy and Golden Globe-winning portrayal of Josephine Baker to her starring role 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 ladies,” Whitfield said, referring to her characters. “I think that through sharing a character’s 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.

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