An Uneasy Birth

Marking the 100th Anniversary of D. W. Griffiths Controversial Landmark Film, The Birth of a Nation

While recently pulling materials for an exhibit on silent films, I happened upon a small promotional flyer, probably from Blacksburgs Lyric Theatre, for D. W. Griffiths Birth of a Nation, which saw its initial theatrical release on March 3, 1915.

Though Griffith’s work is considered a watershed in cinematic history, few today can claim to have watched it in its entirety. The films relegation to a remote corner of public consciousness can be attributed to its silent film format (considered quaint or boring by most modern viewers) and to its treatment of a subject matter that is today widely seen as repugnant.

The Birth of a Nation purports to tell the story of Americas Civil War and the origin of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. In doing so, the film portrays the Klan as a noble organization devoted to protecting Southern society from marauding bands of brutish, lecherous Freedmen and their manipulative, hypocritical carpetbagger allies.

The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the films content and point of view.
The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the films content and point of view.

 

The plot for The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas F. Dixon Jr.s novel The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy about the Reconstruction South. A North Carolina Baptist minister, attorney, and state legislator, Dixon became a popular author around the turn of the 20th century, publishing more than 20 novels. The Clansman

The Clansman is among five of Dixons novels held by Special Collections. The librarys main collection holds several more titles.
The Clansman is among five of Dixons novels held by Special Collections. The librarys main collection holds several more titles.

is today remembered as his most famous (or infamous) work, and from it was drawn the films Southern apologist version of the Klans origins.

In bringing Dixons tale to the screen, Griffith spared no expense and pioneered a number of moviemaking techniques and technologies: The Birth of a Nation is said to have been the first film to employ night photography, panning motion shots, the iris effect, the intercutting of parallel action sequences, and many more advances that would become mainstays of cinematic narrative. Griffith also employed hundreds of extras in staging epic Civil War battle scenes and interspersed his story with accurate tableaux of scenes from American history. The film was unlike anything that movie-going audiences had seen to that time.

 

Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the films production.
Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the films production.

Griffiths accuracy and attention to detail exploited the publics willingness to take its history lessons from fictionalized accounts. An uninformed audience, seeing accurately portrayed historical scenes presented side-by-side with Dixons skewed view of events, might be partially forgiven for accepting all as fact. Even supposedly knowledgeable viewers, however, were enthralled by Griffiths prowess as a storyteller. The film is said to have been the first to be screened in the White House. After seeing it, President Wilson, himself a historian, reportedly said, It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true. The films widespread popularity and its audience’s impressionability are credited with being partially responsible for the KKKs resurgence and rise to political prominence during the 1910s and 1920s.

CAPTION: A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed historic events with a subjective, fanciful view of the Klans origins.
A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed accurate historical depictions of the Civil War with with a subjective, fanciful interpretation of events.

Even in 1915, however, the film spurred controversy. The NAACP staged protests in several major cities and made repeated efforts to have the film banned from theaters. Letter-writing campaigns sought to educate the public on the facts of Reconstruction and to warn of the films inflammatory nature, while boycotts attempted to provide economic deterrents against the film’s release. Such efforts were in fact successful in having the film banned from the theatres of a handful of large cities but could not prevent its nationwide release.

Testimony to its immense popularity at the time, The Birth of a Nation continued to enjoy periodic revivals for years, and it is said to have remained Americas highest-grossing film until being toppled by another Civil War / Reconstruction epic, Gone with the Wind, more than twenty years later.

Despite his films overwhelming commercial success, Griffith was not immune to criticism. Partially in response to negative comments on his films racially intolerant themes, Griffith released his magnum opus, Intolerance, the following year. The three-and-a-half hour epic tells four parallel stories from different time periods of human history, each illustrating the catastrophic consequences of intolerance. Griffith would continue to make films throughout the silent era with varying degrees of success, but he never again matched the achievements of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

Should The Birth of a Nation be considered an early cinematic masterpiece that is marred by its skewed interpretation of history and its outdated, hateful view of racial relations, or should any film (or other work of art) be considered a masterpiece when it advocates a point of view that is later almost universally abhorred as destructive and wrongheaded? In answering this question in his 2003 review of the film in 2003, critic Roger Ebert wrote: The Birth of a Nation is not a bad film because it argues for evil… [I]t is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.

A New Look at the Diary of Jeffrey Wilson

A page from Jeffrey Wilson’s 1913 diary.

Our latest collection with a full transcription online is the Jeffrey Thomas Wilson Diary, which covers the entire year of 1913 in the life of Jeffrey Wilson, a prominent member of the African American community in Norfolk/Portsmouth, Virginia. The transcription project was funded by the Visible Scholarship Initiative, a collaboration between the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and the University Libraries to provide mini-grants for projects that make visible the stages of research and creative scholarship in the liberal arts and human sciences. This particular project was a partnership between several faculty members in the History department, an undergraduate history student, and several members of the faculty here in Special Collections. The transcriptions for each of the 365 daily entries has been visually formatted and displayed as they appear on the page, and many words and phrases have been annotated with popup notes throughout.

The diary was written in a Wanamakers Diary (produced by the department store chain) actually designed for 1911. As Wilson states early on in the diary, I found myself unable to buy a diary like I wanted, therefore, I had to utilize this obsolete one changing days and dates. (January 6, 1913) Wilson hand-corrected the days of the week throughout to reflect 1913. What makes the diary so fascinating are the references Wilson makes to people, places and events that span nearly 70 years- from his childhood as a slave in antebellum Virginia, through the Civil War, the Reconstruction, the American Industrial Revolution and right up to the present time of his writing in 1913, as the early 20th century ushered in the modern world.

Jeffrey Thomas Wilson was born a slave in Portsmouth, Virginia, in 1843, and, according to his obituary, his mother was a slave owned by Mrs. Eliza Edwards, second wife of Thomas E. Edwards, one of Portsmouth’s wealthiest citizens of his day According to the obituary, he never attended school and learned to read and write in secret as a slave boy. At some point in his childhood, Wilson became owned by the Charles A. Grice family, who he lived with beginning in 1853. Wilson writes:

This day 60 years ago, the writer was a little slave boy living on Bermuda street in Norfolk with my dear mother and wicked stepfather. he was a hackman, and my mother was a laundress. It was from there a year or two later, that old man C.A. Grice, and his wife, came and arbitrarily carried me back to Portsmouth, and put me at work in the garden, planting Irish Potatoes. and it no more living with Mammie for me. I learned then that I was indeed a slave. All of them are gone from earth. Mammie to heaven I believe, since then, of course. Fifty eight years ago my brother John and me walked down to the ferry landing in Norfolk, and he got into a boat, and boarded a vessel lying in the stream, loaded for Boston, and made good his escape. I never seen him again for a eleven years. That was what termed the U.G.R.R. [Underground Railroad] The Yellow fever was so serious. White people had no time to look after runaway Negroes, but after the dying whites.(August 14, 1913)

In his teens, Wilson was the valet servant of Alexander Grice, the son of his owner, and traveled with him as he served with Company A, Cohoon’s Battalion, Virginia Infantry, at least during a part of 1862. In 1866, after being freed, Wilson enlisted with the U.S. Navy and traveled through Europe and the US. After his years of service, Wilson returned to Portsmouth and worked at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, as a laborer, and as a bailiff for the Federal Court at Norfolk.

Through the course of his long life, Wilson outlived four wives and had at least twelve children. At the beginning of this 1913 diary, he was 70 years old, and married to his fourth wife of 3 years, Blanche, who was only 34. Their first son, Wendell, whom Wilson talks about frequently throughout the diary, was just a few months old. The couple would have five more children before Blanches death. Another topic frequently mentioned throughout the diary is the Emmanuel AME Church in Portsmouth, where he taught Sunday school and served on the Official Board, the governing body of the church. Wilson was a devoutly religious man, and each of his daily entries starts with quotes from Biblical verses, sometimes in reference to the events of the day, and sometimes referring or in some way similar to the daily sayings supplied by the Wanamaker Diary itself.

In his later years, from 1924 until his death in 1929, Wilson wrote a column called “Colored Notes” for The Portsmouth Star. The column included social news, Wilson’s political views, and issues of race relations, all themes that occur throughout the diary as well. Wilson was one of the first prominent African American newspaper columnists, and as well-known and outspoken member of the Portsmouth African American community, his column is a notable resource for studying the history and outlook of the community in this time period.

With the diarys pages and transcript now available and fully-searchable online, this can hopefully be another valuable resource for studying the life of this fascinating man, as well as the African American community of Portsmouth and more generally of the minority experience during this time period. The diary is available online here.

Subject of Langston Hughess Scottsboro Limited is back in the news.

Scottsboro Limited by Langston Hughes with illustrations by Prentiss Taylor. The Golden Stair Press, 1932
Scottsboro Limited by Langston Hughes with illustrations by Prentiss Taylor. The Golden Stair Press, 1932

Langston Hughess Scottsboro Limited: Four Poems and a Play in Verse was published in 1932 by The Golden Stair Press of New York. It was written in response to a legal case, a miscarriage of justice, a notorious and infamous example of injustice in the Jim Crow South. . . that appeared again in the news this week.

On 25 March 1931, nine young black men, aged 12 to 19 were removed from a freight train by police and arrested at Paint Rock, Alabama. The authorities had been alerted by a group of young white men who, after a confrontation with the black teenagers aboard the train, had been forced off near Stevenson, Alabama. Two young white women, mill workers from Huntsville, were also taken from the train at Paint Rock. When in the custody of the police, the two women reported that they had been raped aboard the train by the young black men. A mob gathered that first evening in Scottsboro, but Alabamas governor, Benjamin Miller, ordered the National Guard to prevent the mob from lynching the young men.

Twelve days later, what became known as the trials of the Scottsboro Boys began. The defendantsOlen Montgomery, Clarence Norris, Haywood Patterson, Ozzie Powell, Willie Roberson, Charlie Weems, Eugene Williams, and brothers Andy and Roy Wrightwere divided into four groups and four separate trials were held. Five days later, eight of the nine had been convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries. Roy Wright, the youngest of the nine, had been found guilty, but only eleven of the twelve jurors voted for the death penalty, even though the prosecution had requested a sentence of life-in-prison. Executions were scheduled for 10 July, the earliest possible date, according to law.

Justice

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise.
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.

Langston Hughes, from Scottsboro Limited

Over the next seven years a series of trials occurred that involved state and federal courts. Twice, cases were appealed before the U.S. Supreme Court. In November 1932 the Court ordered new trials for all the defendants, ruling that the right of the defendants to retain competent legal counsel under the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause had been denied by Alabama. In Haywood Pattersons second trial, which took place in April 1933, Ruby Bates testified that she and Victoria Price had made up the accusations of rape to deflect attention from their own violations of the law. Physical evidence was also introduced that lent credence to the testimony that no rape had taken place. Patterson was again found guilty and sentenced to death.

In April 1935, the Court, hearing arguments in the Patterson and Norris cases, held that the system of jury selection in Alabama that excluded African-Americans was unconstitutional. Convictions were again reversed. The state chose again to prosecute, and by January 1936, Haywood Pattersons fourth trial had begun. He was again convicted and given a 75-year sentence. After testifying at the trial, Ozie Powell was shot in the head by a sheriffs deputy while riding in the backseat of a car following an argument between the two men and an attack by Powell with a penknife that seriously injured the deputy. Powell was handcuffed to Clarence Norris and Roy Wright at the time. Though he survived, Powell was seriously disabled. The sheriff said that Powell was trying to escape.

The poem, Scottsboro was first published in the December 1931 issue of Opportunity:

"Scottsboro," a poem by Langston Hughes from Scottsboro Limited.
“Scottsboro,” a poem by Langston Hughes from Scottsboro Limited.

Scottsboro

8 Black Boys in a Southern Jail.
World, turn pale!

8 Black Boys and one white lie.
Is it much to die? . . .

 
 
 
 
Hughes spent much of the fall of 1931 writing about the Scottsboro case and visited Kilby Prison in Montgomery where eight of the nine young men were held in early 1932. His short verse drama, Scottsboro, Limited, had first been published in the October 1931 issue of New Masses and then republished in 1932, along with his four Scottsboro poems and illustrations by Prentiss Taylor in the Golden Stair Press edition (a copy of which is displayed here and is among the holdings at Special Collections). The play opened in Los Angeles in 1932 and was later performed in Paris and Moscow. Writing in The Cambridge History of African American Literature, Nicole Walingora-Davis describes the play in the following terms:

Hughes offers a caustic description of the collusion of the court with mob violence in Scottsboro, Limited. His compactly staged trial sequence captures the lethal efficiency of the Jim Crow court. By eliminating the prosecutor, defense attorney, and any evidence, and by interpolating the audience into the jury, Hughes stresses the cumulative effect of the procedural irregularites that marred the Jim Crow court: here the Judge presupposed the defendants guiltthe female plaintiffs testimony only confirms his presumption. Hughess concluding call to interracial solidarity and a revolutionary labor movement among black and white laborers functioned like an anthem in his writings, and sought to promote social and economic justice.

By the time Clarence Norriss third trial began on 12 July 1937, seven of the Scottsboro nine had been in prison for six years. By Wednesday of that week, Norris was again sentenced to death. Next to be tried was Andy Wright, who received a sentence of ninety-nine years. Charles Weems, whose sentence was delivered on 24 July, was given seventy-five years. Also that summer, all charges against Willie Robertson, Olen Montgomery, Eugene Williams, and Roy Wright, the youngest of the group, were dropped. The five others remained in Alabama prisons. Weems was paroled in 1943. Powell and Norris in 1946. After a parole violation, Andy Wright received parole in 1950. Patterson escaped from prison in 1948, and, after publishing a book while still a fugitive, was arrested by the FBI in 1950. The governor of Michigan refused Alabamas request for extradition. Clarence Norris published his own book, The Last of the Scottbsoro Boys, in 1979. He died ten years later, truly the last of the group of nine, on 23 January 1989.

* * * * *

But this post started by saying that the Scottsboro Boys were back in the news. Indeed. On 19 April 2013, the Governor of Alabama, Robert Bentley, signed House Joint Resolution 20, passed by the Alabama legislature on 4 April. The resolution formally exonerates all nine of the Scottsboro Boys. The signing ceremony was held at the Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center.

Its important to clear the names of the Scottsboro Boys, Governor Bentley said in a statement. This is the result of a bipartisan, cooperative effort, and I appreciate everyone who worked together to make this legislation a reality.

Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard added, The Legislatures unanimous passage of this important legislation and Governor Bentleys signature show that todays Alabama is far removed from the one that caused such pain for so many so long ago.

From Scottsboro Limited, the first pages of the play by Langston Hughes
From Scottsboro Limited, the first pages of the play by Langston Hughes in the 1932 edition