Several Black History Months ago, I made an attempt to write posts around the theme of Black film production and producers. I failed. I had not known where to look for the information I needed to tell a proper story and therefore couldn’t really tell much of African-American film-making’s rich history at all.
But the Universe is an abundant giver. Over time, more of Black history has been made available digitally. Most recently the National Museum of African American History and Culture launched their Searchable Museum which makes all of their exhibits available online. And during the Covid19 pandemic, Howard University alum Maya Cade built and launched the Black Film Archive, “a living register of Black films made from 1915 to 1979 currently streaming online.”
This Black History Month, I’ve tasked myself with watching the archive and then putting the films in context of what was happening in the Black History as these movies were being produced.
Though the first chapter begins in the 1910s when silent film technologies and storytelling strategies were shaped and perfected, it’s important to provide a snapshot of the late 1800s. By 1860, there were 500,000 free African Americans in the United States, according to the National Museum of African American History & Culture. These free people were the epitome of self reliance as they were refused entry into white America —in addition to being continuously exploited, terrorized, abused and killed by white citizens. Still they made a way within their own communities, developing fraternal organizations, educational centers, businesses and newspapers. And by 1874, a mere nine years after complete emancipation, their total deposits in the Freedmen’s Savings Bank reached approximately $57 million—an amount valued at about $1.4 trillion today.* (Post continues below image.)
They established independent Black towns throughout the nation including but by no means limited to Oscarville, GA; Mound Bayou,MS; and Boley, OK. They continued operating Black benevolent societies such as, The Free African Union Society and the New York Phoenix Society, which had long been established since the 1700s in support of both free and enslaved Africans.
They were incredibly engaged in politics and activism, holding public office throughout the Southern states as this amazing video from Facing History & Ourselves explains. (Did you know that every Congress but one between 1869 and 1901 had at least one Black representative member from the South?)
And they continued to be the artists, inventors and entrepreneurs, they’d been all throughout bondage— finally able to outright own and claim their own creations for themselves.
I knew about none of this history while growing up. I suppose that anyone else educated in American schools likely shares in my experience, but that’s okay. We gon’ get right on this knowledge. Hang with me during this Black History Month of 2022 and I’ll share all that I uncover and discover as I watch Black filmmakers tell their own story of the Black experience. Until tomorrow.
*This data on Black bank deposits was retrieved from page 133 of The Politics of Ethnic and Racial Inequality by J. Owens Smith.