Legendary African American filmmaker/writer, Oscar Micheaux — Just down the road


Every summer Minnesotans head Southwest for the hills, eager to visit the mountains or the Coast – and every trip means a stop at the Wall Drug or the Corn Palace in Mitchell, by legend the only places worthy of a pit stop in South Dakota.  The good news – there is a treasure to be explored in Gregory, South Dakota.  It’s a treasure well worth the 45 minute drive Southwest of Sioux Falls – and it’s a story to be experienced.

Because I just learned about the legacy Oscar Micheaux Center in Gregory, I am enthralled with the stories of the man, the museum and related programs that preserve and share his legacy.  New to the museum and to the story, I am eager to share what I am learning.

Though the story of an African American man who tried and failed as a South Dakota farmer is not a common tale, the story of Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) is one of genius that is widely a celebrated by filmmakers and students of film history throughout the nation and the world.  The museum named for him and the programs of the Center now blossoming in Gregory are incomplete without background on Michieaux the artist.

At first glance, Oscar Micheaux is an unlikely hero.  Born near Metropolis, Illinois (honestly), Micheaux lived his youth in poverty at various sites straddling the Mason-Dixon line. The greatest influences in his early life were his mother, a committed, and demanding, pillar of the American Methodist Church, and the writings of Booker T. Washington which the young Micheaux read voraciously.  Both are clear and every-present influences on Micheaux’s writings and films.

At age 16 Micheaux moved to Chicago where he tackled nearly all of the underpaid jobs then available to African American men, finally making some money as a Pullman porter.  Always a loner he moved on to the area that is now Gregory, South Dakota where he was alone as an African American man who tried to make it as a farmer in a land that was soon to become a dust bowl.  At the same time Micheaux began to turn his life to writing and production of silent films and documentaries.  Wikipedia provides extensive information about Micheaux’s early life and family as well as an excellent filmography, a bibliography of his writings, extensive references and links to research.)

The good news is that failure as a farmer inspired – or forced – Micheaux to explore his creative talents.  In time he became the most prominent producer of race films, both silents and talkies.  He founded the Micheaux Film and Book Company of Sioux City and Chicago.  He created over 40 films, many of which he wrote himself.  Virtually all of his films clearly reflect experiences of his youth, the pervasive impact of racism.  He is quoted as having said, “It is only by presenting those portions of the race portrayed in my pictures, in the light and background of their true state, that we can raise our people to greater heights.”

The story of Micheaux’s impact overflows with the taboo topics of the day such as lynching, corrupt clergy, interracial romance and other examples of racism recalled from his own experience.  Needless to say his cinematic works were not always well received by censors, the clergy of the general public.

Still, over the decades Micheaux discovered and showcased stars of the day whose names are well recognized today.  “Body and Soul” (1925) starred Paul Robeson in his film debut.  That epic was condemned by the New York Censor Board as “sacrilegious” and “immoral” and was banned from New York theaters unless and until it was drastically edited.   In another film “Lying Lips” (1939), Michieux signed Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones, to play a starring role.

Michieux’s legacy as a filmmaker of his era is now well acknowledged in particular by scholars of film history.  The Oscar Micheaux Society at Duke University teaches courses and serves as a center for Micheaux-related research.  Numerous scholars have written extensively on Micheaux’s contributions as a writer and as a film-producer/director.  The Oscar Micheaux Award now honors the work of modern-day African American filmmakers.  He’s memorialized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and honored by the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame.

In 1994 PBS: The American Experience aired a significant video entitled Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Race Movies, described as “a tribute to a very misunderstood, and mysterious film genre that last for over forty years.”

My personal favorite tribute is the Oscar Micheaux commemorative stamp (44 cents) issued by the USPS on June 22, 2010 at a major unveiling ceremony held at the Columbia University School of Arts in Harlem.  The stamp is still available from the Post Office.

When Micheaux died in 1951 he was buried in Great Bend, Kansas. He was on a promotional tour for his last film, “The Betrayal” which unfortunately was not well received by the critics or the public.  A lovely tribute to Micheaux written by John J. Dunphy of Gregory, founder of the Metro East Writers’ Workshop, relates that the memorial monument at Micheaux’s grave bears the inscription “A man ahead of his time.”

About the Museum

The people of South Central South Dakota have long known the stories of their one-time neighbor, the famed writer and filmmaker.  In 1996 they established a film series and writing festival in his honor.  Over the years hundreds of local, national and international Micheaux aficionados have visited the area for the festival.  There are loads of photos of past festivals on the Oscar Micheaux Center website.

The August 2011 Film & Book Festival featured the theme “Micheaux, Cowboys and Indians: Western Facts and Fictions.”

About the Director, Jerry Wilske. 

Jerry Wilske is a friend from long ago, a friend with whom I had lost all contact for decades. Until the holidays I knew nothing of him, much less of Micheaux. When we worked together Jerry was a musician and a teacher par excellence, the sort of teacher the students called “choir coach” and one who could work musical magic with young people.

Recently, a mutual friend told me that he had heard word that our friend Jerry has taken on a new project, one suited to his creative energies.  He had discovered Oscar Micheaux when he attended the Film Festival in 2001; in 2005 he took over as Director of the Oscar Micheaux Center.  Since that time, he has contributed a considerable personal fortune, as well as his time and boundless energy, to restoring his legacy and sharing the stories.  The Oscar Micheaux Center in Gregory, SD, is his project.

Jerry has purchased and restored one of the town’s architectural treasures, the 1910 vintage bank, restored it as the Oscar Micheaux Center, then added garden and a Walk of Fame for African American film makers and stars. (Jerry is proud to note that, unlike the Hollywood Walk of Fame this one has real granite markers.)  He splits his time between his over-the-museum apartment in Gregory and a home near Iowa City.  This when he is not on the road promoting the accomplishments of Micheaux and of the scores of African American film artists and actors who, like Micheaux, are too often overlooked by the general public.

If winter continues to restrain its fury, I hope to make the trip soon to Gregory where I can learn more about the Center and about Jerry’s vision for the future.  I’ll have camera and notebook in hand so there will no doubt be more to report on this fascinating man and the story he is sharing so generously.

Meantime, I have reams to read by and about Oscar Micheaux, his life, his insights on race-related issues of the first half of the 20th Century, and about the films he created and books he wrote.  I have much to learn on the road to Godfrey!

Note:  The Oscar Micheaux Center is open year-round; there’s a detailed schedule online.  The Center includes a 90-seat theater, where two or three of Micheaux’s films, along with the films by and about other African American filmmakers and stars, are shown.  Though only 15 of Micheaux’s films survive, the center has DVD copies of all 15 for sale.

To keep in touch with evolving plans for the 2012 Film Festival and Writers’ Conference, check the Festival website or to learn more about the Center, follow the website or get on the mailing list by contacting director of the Oscar Micheaux Center:  Jerry Wilske, 524 Main Street, PO Box 26, Gregory SD, 57533 – 605 835 9478 or jerrywilske@yahoo.com

CORRECTIONS 1/19/2012: The Oscar Micheaux Center is in Gregory, SD. Oscar Micheaux’s middle name is not Devereaux.