Archive | March, 2013

The Federal Theater Project in Harlem

29 Mar

During the Great Depression as many as one in four people were unemployed. To combat this Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA, later renamed Works Projects Administration, had many divisions including the Federal Writers’ Project and the Federal Theater Project and helped creat jobs for writers, artists, and actors during the Great Depression. These two programs were highly successful and helped nourish the talents of many writers, actors, and directors. The Federal Writers’ Project employed many writers who went on to national success including Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow and John Cheever, May Swenson, Ralph Ellison, Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright.

The Federal Writers’ Project conducted thousands of interviews with Americans gathering stories and oral histories. The original plan was to gather these oral histories into a large anthology. World War II and increasing political pressure against the WPA in the late 1930s put a halt to this project. Fortunately, these interviews are housed at the Library of Congress as part of theirAmerican Life Histories Project.

The Federal Theater Project was also an initiative of the WPA and included the Negro Theatre Project (NTP). In 1936 the Negro Theater Project produced a groundbreaking version of Macbeth in Harlem. The Henry Hampton Collection contains images relating to this production as part of The Great Depression series. Also known as the Voodoo Macbeth the play was an ambitious modern production with an all African American cast. Theater director John Houseman hired Orson Welles, who was twenty years old at that time, to direct the play.

Poster for the Negro Theatre Project's production of "Macbeth"

Poster for the Negro Theatre Project’s production of “Macbeth”

Welles moved the setting from Scotland to Haiti  play set in the court of King Henri Christophe. The Celtic witches became voodoo “witch doctors,” and Welles added the musical element of drums to the production. During the rehearsals, Welles and the Federal Theater Project were suspected of making the play into a comedy or burlesque of Shakespeare and the production was picketed by the Harlem Communists. In another altercation a man attempted to slash Welles’ face with a razor but was stopped by boxer Canada Lee, who was with Welles at the time. In the end, the play opened on April 14, 1936 to a packed house.

Opening night of the Federal Theater Project's Macbeth, Harlem, New York.

Opening night of the Negro Theater Project’s “Macbeth,” Harlem, New York.

With highly stylized sets, costumes, and all African American cast, the play was one of the Federal Theater Project’s biggest success.

Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial Concert

21 Mar

On Sunday, April 9, 1939, celebrated singer Marian Anderson performed an open air concert at the Lincoln Memorial. During the 1930s Anderson had toured extensively and successfully in Europe, in part to escape the racial prejudice she encountered while touring in America. When she played a concert at Princeton in 1937 she stayed with Albert Einstein, who was a fan and supporter, because she had been denied accommodations at a hotel in town. Anderson continued to encounter these barriers, and when the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) refused to allow her to sing at their Constitution Hall a national furor erupted.  Many members of the Daughters of the American Revolution resigned in protest including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt had been an advocate of many issues of social justice including the push for anti-lynching legislation and she and FDR began working with Walter White, Head of the NAACP, and Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, to arrange a concert for Anderson. Anderson eventually performed at the Lincoln Memorial to an audience of 75,000 and the concert was broadcast nationwide.

Blackside interviewed Eleanor and FDR’s grandson, Curtis Roosevelt for the series, The Great DepressionIn his interview he talks about his grandparents and Eleanor’s efforts to arrange the concert with Anderson,

Washington, D.C. was a Jim Crow town all through World War II. Now we’re back in the ’30s. However, there was one instance where it came up, and my grandmother’s feeling about the issue was very strong. It came up in relation to Marian Anderson.

A situation arose where the DAR [Daughters of the American Revolution], which had a lovely hall in Washington, D.C., and the hall had booked a concert by the noted contralto Marian Anderson. The DAR unilaterally withdrew the invitation, clearly on racial lines. My grandmother’s response, since it hit the public press immediately, was to resign and state publicly and openly and with obvious anger why she had resigned from the DAR, and then took steps to get Harold Ickes, who as Secretary of Interior would be the official person in charge of public places like the Lincoln Memorial and to strongly press him. It needs to be said that Harold Ickes was immediately keen to do this.

My grandmother urged and endorsed the Interior Department to give the space of nothing less than the Lincoln Memorial to Marian Anderson to perform, and no less than the Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes introduced her.

And here’s another example of FDR taking a political risk, but he was capable of taking a risk when it was worth it, and it wasn’t just idealism. My grandmother could function under pure idealism. He was the elected official, President of the United States, and always balancing what he could do and what he couldn’t do, and constantly pushing the idealistic direction, but definitely soft pedaling when it was necessary. In this instance he felt he could go all the way and the Secretary of the Interior provided the Lincoln Memorial for Marian Anderson.

–Interview with Curtis Roosevelt,  conducted by Blackside, Inc. on March 10, 1992, for The Great Depression. Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

Women in the Civil Rights Movement

15 Mar
Interviewees from "Eyes on the Prize." Top row (left to right): Diane Nash, Melba Pattillo Beals, Rosa Parks. Bottom row (left to right): Eliza Briggs, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Casey Hayden.

Interviewees from “Eyes on the Prize.” Top row (left to right): Diane Nash, Melba Pattillo Beals, Rosa Parks. Bottom row (left to right): Eliza Briggs, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Casey Hayden.

The role of women in the civil rights movement is often underrepresented and overlooked. When someone thinks of the movement the names that come to mind are usually male, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael, or Malcolm X. Luckily for historians and scholars there are quite a few resources out there about women in the civil rights movement. When filmmaker Henry Hampton made his groundbreaking series on the civil rights movement, Eyes on the Prize, he chose to tell the stories of the people who made up the movement, not necessarily the leaders of the movement. Hampton’s friend and coworker at the Unitarian Universalist Association, Bob Hohler gave a talk at Washington University where he spoke about Hampton’s plan for his film about the civil rights movement. Hampton originally had a deal with Capital Cities Communications in 1978. Hohler recalled,

Henry and his staff discussed possibilities and he proposed a series on the civil rights movement. He told them of his Selma experience, of walking across that bridge and thinking what a great, dramatic film it would make. Telling the story through the eyes of the people who lived it. In fact, telling the entire story of the civil rights movement from their point of view.

–Bob Hohler (University Libraries National Council Meeting, Washington University in St. Louis, September 20, 2002)

The deal with Capital Cities Communications fell through in part because they wanted Hampton to focus on the leaders of the movement rather than the everyday people who made up the mass marches and protests. Hampton was ahead of his time, both in how he ran his production teams with a mixture of men and women, African Americans and whites, and in the people he chose to interview for the series.

Some people such as Fannie Lou Hamer had already died by the time Hampton began to make Eyes on the Prize, but footage of Hamer’s speech before the Credentials Committee of the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, August 22, 1964 as a member of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was a major part of Episode 5: Mississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964). Six of the Little Rock Nine, young students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, were young women and Hampton’s production company Blackside interviewed several members of that group including Melba Pattillo Beals and Thelma Mothershed Wair. Pattillo Beals’ interview was a major part of Episode 2: Fighting Back (1957-1962) about the school integration crisis in Little Rock. Diane Nash, was a young student at Fisk University in Nashville when she became involved in the sit-in movement and eventually challenged Mayor West of Nashville during a protest march asking him directly if he thought it was wrong to discriminate against someone solely on their race. Mayor West agreed that it was not morally right to discriminate in that way and that statement was an important moment in that campaign which was successful in desegregating the lunch counters and public facilities in Nashville. Nash went on the work for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was heavily involved in the Freedom Rides.

Other women from the civil rights movement that were interviewed by Blackside include Mississippi activist, Unita Blackwell (note: Blackwell was interviewed several times by Blackside), Eliza Briggs, one of the plaintiffs in Briggs v. Elliott, a case which challenged the segregated school system, Virginia Durr, an activist from Montgomery, Rosa Parks, who famously sparked the Montgomery Buy Boycott, Casey Hayden, another SNCC member, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Sweet Honey in the Rock singer and activist, and many others.

Many of these interviews’ transcripts are available to read online: Eyes on the Prize: The Complete Series, but there are many other interviews and resources on women in the civil rights movement at the Film and Media Archive. A good place to start researching is our online catalog, but researchers can always contact the Film Archive directly with questions.

Special Collections Travel Grant Competition

8 Mar


The Department of Special Collections is pleased to announce that applications for the 2013 Travel Grant Competition are now being accepted. Travel reimbursement grants of up to $1000 are available to faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, and independent scholars who would like to use our collections for research. Funds may be used for transportation, food, lodging, and photocopying. Applicants must reside at least 50 miles from St. Louis. Follow the link for more information and the application form.

Application Deadline: March 15, 2013. Travel must occur between May 15, 2013 and June 30, 2014.

Henry Hampton in Selma

7 Mar

March 7, 2013 marks the 5oth anniversary of  Bloody Sunday in Selma, Alabama. This past week there was a celebration and march with Vice President Joe Biden, and Rep. John Lewis, who was one of the organizers of the original marches. Lewis spoke at the event which occurred a few days after the Supreme Court heard a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Henry Hampton and G. Robert Hohler marching in Selma, Alabama on the day of James Reeb's memorial service. Photo by Thomas Adams Rothschild.

Henry Hampton and G. Robert Hohler marching in Selma, Alabama on the day of James Reeb’s memorial service. Photo by Thomas Adams Rothschild.

On March 7, 1965 civil rights activists first attempted to march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama but were met with brutal resistance from state troopers and deputized citizens on the Edmud Pettus Bridge. This confrontation had been brewing for some time as members of various civil rights groups attempted to register African Americans to vote in Dallas County, Alabama. Local organizers including Amelia Boynton Robinson worked with members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to help people to register to vote.

Resistance to African Americans registering to vote throughout the South has existed for decades and in 1961 out of 15,000 eligible African American only 130 were registered to vote in Dallas County, Alabama. In Amelia Boynton Robinson’s interview for Eyes on the Prize, she talks about the arduous process people were forced to go through to register,

At that time, they had two pages to fill out. And these two pages were questions that were pretty hard for the average person to fill out. And it was terribly hard for those who were illiterate. We had more illiteracy in this county than they had in most counties throughout the state, or in any other state, but we would teach them how to fill these blanks out. We could not do it by coming in the open and doing it, so we started with the people with whom we worked who were the rural people…and we would show them how to fill out these blanks, how to present themselves when they went down to the registration office. At that time, my husband was a registered voter and a voucher. Each person that came down to register had to have a voucher with him.

Interview with Amelia Boynton Robinson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 6, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965).

In the fall of 1964 and early part of 1965 as more African Americans attempted to register to vote in Dallas County they were met with resistance and violence culminating in an incident on February 18, 1965 when Jimmie Lee Jackson was shot in a cafe after a protest by Corporal James Bonard Fowler. Jackson died eight days later and was the inspiration for the original march from Selma to Montgomery. The marchers, with John Lewis and Hosea Williams at the front of the line, set out on March 7. They were met by a line of state troopers and numerous men who had been hastily deputized by Sheriff Jim Clark. Commanding officer John Cloud spoke briefly to Lewis and Williams and then the troopers attacked the marchers.

Alabama state troopers attack protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge,  Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965.

Alabama state troopers attack protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965. (John Lewis can be seen on the right wearing a back pack.)

Amelia Boynton Robinson was also in this march and described her experience in her interview for Eyes on the Prize,

And the men came from the right side, from the left side from in front of us. They came upon us and started beating us with their nightsticks. They started cattle prodding us. They started gassing us with gas. The helicopters were ahead of us, and I said to the lady who was with me, “What in the world do these people mean?” And I remember having seen a horse, a white horse, and then I saw several other horses. One of the officers came to me, state trooper, and he hit me across the back of my neck. And I made a slight turn and he hit me again, and I remember having fallen to the ground. From that, I don’t remember anything else, except the pictures that I saw and what was told to me. And that was this, that every person, every black person they saw, they started beating on them. They tried to run the horses over some of them, and the horses would not step on them. But they took their nightsticks and they gassed them, and I was gassed. And I saw the picture where I was lying on the ground and this gas was being pumped over me, possibly thinking that, this is the leader, if we get them we will destroy the movement. I understand that someone said, “Get out of the road.” The officers came out and said, “Get out.” And realizing that I could not move somebody said, “She’s dead.” “Well,” he said, “if she’s dead just pull her on the side and let the buzzards eat her.” Some of the people on the other side of the bridge, said to Clark, “Jim Clark, send an ambulance over there. Somebody is dead and some people are hurt badly.” And he said, “I’m not going to send any ambulance over there. Let them do the best they can.” Someone else said to him, “If you don’t send an ambulance over there you’re going to [have] chaos on your hands because these people are going to be angry enough to tear this town up.” Then he permitted the ambulance to come.

Interview with Amelia Boynton Robinson, conducted by Blackside, Inc. on December 6, 1985, for Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965).

That same night ABC broke into its scheduled film Judgment at Nuremberg to broadcast images of violence from Selma. A small Southern town became the focus of the entire nation and after the images of the brutalized marchers were broadcast Martin Luther King issued a call for civil rights activists to come to Selma to help continue the march. A young Henry Hampton, originally from St. Louis but working for the Unitarian Universalists in Boston, was among the people who arrived to support the marchers. He was a firsthand witness to the events in Selma during the march on Turnaround Tuesday and later spoke about what he experienced there during an interview,

I was in Selma, and it was a story that at that point—literally it was the only time in my life that I’ve ever been prophetic—it was a moment when we were standing there on the bridge, the Pettus Bridge, in Selma. There were cameras buzzing overhead…the president and federal government in all its power was there. We had terrific villains. There was a man named Al Lingo, who was the head of the Alabama State Police, that most don’t remember. They remember George Wallace but together they were a formidable opposition who were literally killing people, and I looked around and said to myself, not being a native Southerner, I looked around and said, ‘This could make a terrific movie,’ and put the idea away for twelve or fifteen years. When someone asked me the question, if you had your absolute druthers and the money, what would you do? Ten seconds it came back, it would be the television history of the civil rights movement…something fundamental changed in the country on that bridge and rarely do you get that kind of visual moment that confirms this massive shift in the way that people are going to feel about each other. It doesn’t mean that everyone loved everyone but it meant, I think, that America was no longer going to step backwards. It was going to step forward and these are important moments.”

–An interview with Henry Hampton. Conducted by Chris Lydon, 3/31/94

Hampton was a witness to the tumultuous days that followed, including the murder of the Unitarian minister James Reeb, and his funeral. The marchers were only able to begin the march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21 as 8,000 people set out to cover the fifty-four miles to Montgomery to deliver a petition to Governor Wallace.  At the end of the march 25,000 people joined in to hear Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his speech Our God is Marching On on the steps of the Capitol building. It would take Hampton more than twenty years to fulfill his dream of a televised history of the civil rights movement. Eyes on the Prize debuted on PBS in 1987 attracting millions of viewers, and the series has become the definitive documentary program on the subject of civil rights.