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World War I and William Miles

7 Nov

This Monday Webster University will screen Apocalypse: World War I (Parts 1 and 2), “a monumental five-part miniseries produced by France 2 Television which used over 500 hours of archival footage unearthed after exhaustive research in archives, film libraries and private collections around the world.” Later in the week Webster will screen, The Officers’ Ward (La chambre des officiers) and, The African Fighters of the Great War (Les combatants africains de la grande guerre).

Flmmaker William Miles, whose collection is housed at Washington University Film & Media Archive, covered similar subject matter in his groundbreaking film about African-Americans during World War I. Miles’ 1977 documentary, Men of Bronze  is the definitive story of the black American soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” who, because of segregation in the U.S. Army, fought under the French flag in World War I. The regiment spent more time in the front-line trenches that any other American unit, fighting alongside French, Moroccan, and Senegalese soldiers. The 369th became the most decorated American unit in WWI, and their regimental band under the leadership of James Reese Europe became famous and was often credited with helping introduce jazz to Europe.

The Miles Collection contains many photos, documents, and film elements relating to African-American soldiers from WWI, WWII and later decades. For more information about the collection, contact the Film & Media Archive.

The 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the "Harlem Hellfighters," return home to New York.

The 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” return home to New York.

Filmmaker William Miles, 1931-2013

17 May
Filmmaker William Miles at the Film & Media Archive - Washington University

Filmmaker William Miles at the Washington University Film & Media Archive

Filmmaker William Miles has died at the age of  eighty-two in New York.

William Miles was born in Harlem, New York in 1931 and became a documentary filmmaker whose work focused on the cultural experience and achievements of African-Americans. The subjects of his films ranged from the unique history of Harlem, to the under-reported contributions of African-Americans in the military, the space program, sports, and their role in migration out to the West of the United States.

As a young boy, Miles lived across the street from the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, and was aware of the vibrant African-American culture and equally aware of how the media of the dominant culture ignored contributions by African-Americans.

During a visit to the filmmaker archive shortly after the Film & Media Archive at  Washington University acquired his collection in 2005, he talked of going to the movies as a young boy and asking, “Where are our stories?” This question led him on a life-long pursuit to bring the stories of African-Americans to the screen. Materials from the collection include interviews, stock footage, manuscripts, correspondence and a large collection of photographs.

In honor of Mr. Miles the Film & Media Archive created an essay contest and prize. The William Miles Prize is awarded to the best undergraduate or graduate research paper that utilizes primary source material from the Archive.

William Miles worked for 25 years restoring archival films and early feature classics for Killiam Shows, Inc. and the Walter Reade Organization in New York City, and this experience led to his work as an independent directory and producer of documentary films. Based at Thirteen/WNET in New York City, he wanted to document the rich history of Harlem, and to highlight little-known stories of African American achievements in the military, the arts, sports, and in aerospace and exploration.

His first major production was Men of Bronze (1977), the little-know story of the African American soldiers of the 369th combat regiment, from Harlem, who fought with the French army in World War I. Denied the right to fight in the American forces, the regiment chose to fight with the French, and at the end of the war were awarded high military honors from the French government.

I Remember Harlem (1981), was a four-part series on the history of Harlem, from its beginnings in the 17th century to the early 1980s. With segments on the Harlem Renaissance, the Great Depression in Harlem, the civil rights movement including Malcolm X’s time in Harlem, and the challenges and problems of the 1970s, I Remember Harlem, is a comprehensive look at the rich and unique history of this borough.

Mr. and Mrs. Miles view newly arrived manuscript boxes from the William Miles Collection at the Film & Media Archive - Washington University.

Mr. and Mrs. Miles view newly arrived manuscript boxes from the William Miles Collection at the Film & Media Archive – Washington University.

Other major films by Miles are The Different Drummer: Blacks in the Military ( 1983), Black Champions (1986), Black Stars in Orbit (1990) Liberators: Fighting on Two Fronts in World War II (1992),  and The Black West (date).  Miles also co-produced James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket (1989) an episode of PBS’s American Masters series about the American writer.

Miles won an Emmy Award, was nominated for an Academy Award, and was inducted into the Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF) for his outstanding contributions to the history of African Americans in the medium of film.

Tuskegee Airmen and “Black Stars in Orbit”

9 Nov
Tuskegee Airman

War poster featuring a Tuskegee Airman

Lt. Col. Herbert Eugene Carter, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, has died. Carter was one of an elite group of African American aviators who flew numerous successful missions during World War II. The armed forces were not only segregated at that time, but prior to World War II the Army did not accept African American pilots. This changed with the training program at the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, in Alabama.

Documentary filmmaker, William Miles, created Black Stars in Orbit, to tell the story of African American aviators and astronauts. He interviewed Lee A. Archer who was part of the Tuskegee training program. Archer, who died in 2012, flew 169 combat missions in Europe during World War II, a huge number as most pilots flew an average of 50.
Edward J. Dwight, Jr. - Tuskegee Airman

Edward J. Dwight, Jr.

Miles also interviewed Edward J. Dwight, Jr.  for Black Stars in Orbit. Dwight did not train at Tuskegee but was part of an early astronaut training school in 1962. Identified by President Kennedy as a great candidate to become part of the Mercury Program Dwight began training at the Aerospace Test Pilots’ School at Edwards Air Force Base. He talked about his experience in the interview and how eventually after Kennedy’s assassination he was passed over for the next phase of the program.
Edward J. Dwight, Jr. in "Black Stars in Orbit"

Edward J. Dwight, Jr. in “Black Stars in Orbit”

After the tumultuous 1960s and the harassment Dwight and his wife faced in the Air Force, Dwight became a private flight instructor and eventually a sculptor. His interview for Black Stars in Orbit shows him in hist studio working on a piece as he recounts his story.

Gordon Parks

20 Jul

Gordon Parks at the March on Washington, 1963

This year marks the centennial of Gordon Parks’ birth. Parks was a prolific artist and worked as a photographer, musician, writer, and filmmaker. The Gordon Parks Foundation is hosting several events and exhibits to commemorate his life and work. Parks was born in Fort Scott, KS and went on to make his mark in several fields. He began working as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington D.C. where he produced a now iconic image “American Gothic,” featuring an African American woman, Ella Watson who worked on a cleaning crew at the FSA. The Film & Media Archive owns a print of this work along with correspondence from Parks to filmmaker Henry Hampton.

Parks went on to work for Life magazine where he did documentary photo essays, including “The Restraints: Open and Hidden,” which explored the world of segregation in color photographs. Parks chose to focus on the everyday life of an African American family in Mobile, Alabama. In an essay in the New York Times which features images from this series the writer, Maurice Berger observes,

As the holistic depiction of black life in the rural South in the “Segregation Series” demonstrates, the aspirations, responsibilities, vocations, and rituals of the Thornton family were no different from those of white Americans. Yet, these religious and law-abiding people, and others like them, were persecuted. It is this incongruity, made visible by Mr. Parks’s photographs, which may have appealed to the empathy and fairness of some of Life’s white readers. It challenged them to reconsider both their attitudes about segregation and the stereotypes they assigned to people who were little different from them.

“American Gothic” by Gordon Parks

The Film & Media Archive hold three filmed interviews with Gordon Parks. He was filmed for two Blackside productions, Eyes on the Prize and Malcolm X: Make It Plain, and for one film in the William Miles Collection, I Remember Harlem. For Parks’ interview for Malcolm X: Make It Plain, he described how he met and interviewed Malcolm X when he was working as a reporter and photographer at Life magazine. This meeting led to a friendship, and Malcolm eventually asked Parks to be godfather to his daughter, Qubilah. A typescript page from this interview transcript can be seen below.

Typescript page with annotations from the “Interview with Gordon Parks” for “Malcolm: Make It Plain.”

For more information on any of these interviews, please contact the Film and Media Archive.

2011 William Miles Prize Winner – Howard Rudnick

27 May

William Miles


The Film and Media Archive is pleased to announce that the winner of the 2011 Miles Prize is the essay “A Coincidental Cup of Kenyan Coffee: SNCC and Malcolm X Recast the Struggle in Nairobi” by Howard Rudnick. The essay investigates the influence of various African freedom struggles on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a major organization in the American Civil Rights Movement.

Howard is a Washington University Graduate who majored in history and economics. His research was directed by Dr. Jean Allman. We offer our congratulations to him on an insightful and well-researched essay.

Sponsored by the Program in African and African-American Studies and by the Film and Media Archive, the Miles Prize honors the life and work of African-American filmmaker William Miles. Essays submitted for the contest must make significant use of materials held by the Film and Media Archive.

The William Miles Prize – 2011

10 Feb

William Miles

This prize honors the life and work of filmmaker William Miles, who chronicled the achievements of African Americans in documentaries such as I Remember Harlem and Men of Bronze.  The Washington University Film and Media Archive houses the William Miles Collection.  In partnership with the Program in African & African-American Studies, the archive will award an undergraduate prize of $500 to an outstanding essay, or other serious research project, that makes significant use of rare or unique materials from the archive.

The Film and Media Archive is a treasure trove of 20th-century African-American history and culture, and of American history and culture more broadly.  Areas represented in the archive include: the Civil Rights Movement, the Great Depression, Great Society programs, 20th-century African-American culture and arts, African Americans in the military, African Americans in science, Pro-democracy movements in Africa (Benin, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Africa), and many other topics related to 20th-century American history and culture.

Eligibility Requirements and Other Information:

  • Essays must be at least 8 pages. Other types of serious research projects are also eligible for the prize (e.g., a documentary film or a multimedia website).
  • Essays and projects must make significant use of rare or unique materials in the Film and Media Archive.
  • Entries are welcome from any academic discipline.
  • All entrants must take a tour of the archive and have a consultation with the archive staff by March 1, 2011.  To schedule your tour and consultation, please contact Alison Carrick at
  • Entries are due April 1, 2011.
  • For more information about the Film and Media Archive, please contact us.

Sponsored by:

Washington University Libraries and The Program in African & African-American Studies

2nd Annual William Miles Essay Contest

1 Jul
William Miles

William Miles

This past spring, in partnership with the African & African American Studies Program, the Film and Media Archive awarded a prize of $500 to an outstanding undergraduate essay that made significant use of rare or unique materials from the archive.

This prize honors the life and work of filmmaker William Miles, who chronicled the achievements of African Americans in documentaries such as I Remember Harlem and Men of Bronze. The Washington University Film and Media Archive houses the William Miles Collection.

The essays were judged by a committee consisting of faculty members and archive staff.  During the 2008-2009 academic year, we have seen a significant increase in the number of faculty members who have created writing assignments that require, or strongly encourage, use of our materials.  The involvement of faculty, who have integrated the archive into their assignments and have pushed their students to submit essays, has been extremely important to the success of this venture.

Sima Kaplan and Jodi Smith

Sima Kaplan and Jodi Smith

We would like to announce that the winner of the undergraduate prize is Jodi Smith for her paper “The Child Development Group in Mississippi: An Analysis of Head Start and the Importance of the Civil Rights Movement.” This paper was written for Professor Maggie Garb’s class, Poverty and Social Reform in American History. Congratulation to Ms. Smith for her outstanding work.

The committee also wanted to recognize Sima Kaplan with an Honorable Mention for a freshman paper entitled “A Journey to Self-Awareness: Sonia Sanchez and the Black Female Identity.” Ms. Kaplan’s paper was written for Professor Sowande’ Mustakeem’s class, Critical Themes in African-American Women’s History: Sexuality, Violence, and the Love of Hip Hop.

Sponsored by Washington University Libraries and the African and African-American Studies Program. More photos from the event.

Dean Shirley Baker

Dean Shirley Baker

Professor Joseph Thompson announcing the winner, Jodi Smith

Professor Joseph Thompson announcing the winner, Jodi Smith

William Miles Event

William Miles Event