From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Conley, Nellie [Madame Sul-Te-Wan]

(born: 1873  -  died: 1959) 

Actress Nellie Conley was born in Louisville, KY, the daughter of Silas Crawford Wan and Cleo de Londa. In 1983, she was posthumously inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. Conley went by the name Madame Sul-Te-Wan, acting in early films such as Birth of a Nation and later films such as Carmen Jones and Tarzan and the Trappers. Prior to moving to California and acting in films, Conley had moved from Louisville to Cincinnati, OH. While there, she formed "The Black Four Hundred," an acting company that employed 16 performers and 12 musicians. The company was successful, as was a minstrel company that she established. Conley soon married and eventually moved to California. Two years later, she had just given birth to her third son when her husband left her. Her money was gone, so for a period of time Conley had to rely on charity. Times got better when she was hired by Kentucky native D. W. Griffith for the movie The Clansman [aka Birth of a Nation]. Her pay was initially three dollars a day and later increased to five dollars a day. She and D. W. Griffith remained friends for the rest of their lives; she had bit parts in seven of his films. She also continued to perform in vaudeville, silent films, and "talkies" [films with sound]. In 1949, Conley married Anton Ebenthur, who was a white Frenchman; the couple married five years before interracial marriages were legal in California. According to writer Victor Walsh, Conley and Ebenthur were active members of Club Miscegenation in Los Angeles.

It has also been incorrectly written that Madame Sul-Te-Wan was the mother of Ruby Dandridge (1900-1987) and the grandmother of Dorothy Dandridge (1922-1965). The untruth stems from Madame Sul-Te-Wan playing the role of Hagar, the grandmother of the character "Carmen" [Dorothy Dandridge] in the 1954 film Carmen Jones.

For more see Biography Index. A cumulative index to biographical material in books and magazines, vol. 18: Sept. 1992-Aug. 1993; Directory of Blacks in the Performing Arts, 1st ed., by E. Mapp; The Negro Trail Blazers of California, by D. Beasley; and V. Walsh, "Women's History Month: Madame Sul-Te-Wan; Hollywood's first African American actress," Oakland Post, 03/19/1997, p. 8.

Kentucky County & Region

Read about Jefferson County, Kentucky in Wikipedia.

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Outside Kentucky Place Name


Cited in this Entry

NKAA Source: Birth of a nation, or the clansman
NKAA Source: Carmen Jones (videorecording)
NKAA Source: Tarzan and the trappers (videorecording)
NKAA Source: Birth of a nation, or the clansman
NKAA Source: Biography index; a cumulative index to biographical material in books and magazines (periodical)
NKAA Source: Directory of Blacks in the performing arts
NKAA Source: The Negro trail blazers of California
NKAA Source: Oakland post (newspaper)

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Conley, Nellie [Madame Sul-Te-Wan],” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed July 28, 2021,

Last modified: 2021-04-10 14:24:07