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African-American film pioneer Oscar Michaeaux's last day spent in Charlotte

Oscar D. Micheaux
Oscar D. Micheaux
44-cent, Oscar Micheaux commemorative stamp

On March 25, 1951, farmer, entrepreneur, novelist, screenwriter, film producer, director, distributor, producer Oscar Devereaux Micheaux died in Charlotte, North Carolina. Micheaux died of a heart attack which on a business trip.

Michaeaux was born January 2, 1884 in Metropolis, Illinois and raised in Kansas. He is most remembered as a pioneer black filmmaker. He produced over 44 films – the majority of which he wrote, directed, produced, and promoted.

Micheaux was a pioneer in the literal sense as well. In 1904, Micheaux took out a 500 acre homestead in part of the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Despite hardships – mostly in the form of disreputable white farm equipment suppliers -- his farm was a success.

Micheaux's experiences on his farm did not embitter him, but inspired him to begin yet another successful enterprise: this time as a writer.

His books included

  • The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913)
  • The Forged Note: A Romance of The Darker Races (1915)
  • His autobiography, The Homesteader (1917)
  • The Wind from Nowhere (1941)

Typical in the US at that time, there were many artificial barriers erected to keep Negro writers from succeeding. But the resourceful Micheaux made a way to succeed. He sold his own books door to door. They were very popular - even among his white neighbors in South Dakota.

Micheaux eventually formed his own publishing company, Western Book and Supply Company. His book, The Homesteader, caught the attention of Black-owned film Company Lincoln Films. This led to Micheaux beginning yet another career - as a filmmaker.

In 1918, Lincoln Films, based in Los Angeles California, initially contracted with Micheaux to produce the silent film version of The Homesteader. Events led to Micheaux deciding to produce the movie himself. He set up the Micheaux Film and Book Company and completed work on The Homesteader in 1919. Micheaux became the first black independent filmmaker.

While his films were panned by critics, they were wildly popular with black audiences who longed to see Negro faces on the big screen. Eventually, Micheaux managed to get his films shown in black and some white theaters across the country.

By today’s standards, Micheaux’s work might seem primitive, predictable, stereotypical, - but his worked paved the way for more blacks to find work in Hollywood. Micheaux introduced audiences across the county to the talented and charismatic young Paul Robeson, (Body and Soul). Robert Earl Jones - father and vocal twin to James Earl Jones- starred in 1939‘s Lying Lips.

Other notable actors who appeared in Oscar Micheaux films:

  • Edna Mae Harris
  • Lawrence Chenault
  • Boxer Sam Langford
  • Lorenzo Tucker known as the "Black Valentino,"
  • Blues singer Trixie Smith African American blues singer
  • Amanda Randolph, the first African-American performer to star in a regularly-scheduled network television show.

Here is a link to the one of Micheaux's best surviving works, Within Our Gates, a powerful look at racism and violence in the American South.

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