As we wrap up February, we do so with a nod to Black History Month. One hundred years ago, a man with Great Bend connections, Oscar Micheaux, published his second novel, “The Homesteader,” which was soon after made into his first film. Micheaux went on to influence other major filmmakers and continues to add to the richness of our local history. Here, in a special edition of Out of the Morgue, is a recap of his and his family’s story.
Exoduster. Many people aren’t familiar with that word now. But in the late 1870s and early 1880s, the term was spread across newspapers nationwide, especially in the South and the Great Plains. Kansans became quite familiar with the term. Specifically, it applies to the “Great Exodus” of African-Americans -- ex-slaves -- migrating from the southern states to Kansas and other parts of the Plains in search of new lives.
Kansas was viewed with favor, partially because of its connection to John Brown and the anti-slavery movement, but even more for the availability of farm ground through the Homestead Act of 1862. Of all the settlements in the state, Nicodemus, in Graham County, is most famous, since it is the only remaining western town founded by African-Americans during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Period. It is also a National Historic Site. But, Barton and Stafford Counties had significant numbers of black settlers during those years, as well. Two significant colonies were founded here, one north-northwest of Redwing, another straddling the county line southeast of Great Bend. By 1880, there were over 80 black households in the our counties.
Migration to Kansas by black families looking for a better life wasn’t just confined to that small window of time, either. A second, larger migration occurred in the 1920s and 1930s when families came up out of Mississippi, Alabama, and other states to work for the Missouri-Pacific and Atchison, Topeka, & Santa Fe Railroads here in Central Kansas.
Descendants of many of these families are still living and working among us. Many have gone elsewhere and made their marks on the world, inspired by their pioneering ancestors and others, like George Washington Carver (who farmed in Ness County) and Booker T. Washington. With literacy comes liberation -- reading and writing changes and shapes lives in profound ways, whether the learner was an African-American slave 150 years ago or a disadvantaged adult learner today -- creativity and self-expression -- music, visual arts, literature, drama, etc. -- can play a huge role in overturning social, political, and racial boundaries. In the children of the Exoduster migration, the African-American tradition of storytelling blossomed to express itself in literature, film, music, and theater. Among these was Oscar Micheaux, whose grandmother Melvina Micheaux, uncle William Micheaux, and aunt Harriet (Micheaux) Robinson were part of the colony that bridged the Barton-Stafford County line.
“This is a true story of a negro who was discontented and the circumstances that were the outcome of that discontent,” is how Oscar Micheaux described his own journey in the introduction to his novel The Conquest. Born near Metropolis, Illinois, in 1864, the son of freed slaves, who had migrated north from Kentucky, Oscar was one of eleven children. He grew up working on the family farm and doing odd jobs. By the late 1870s, his grandmother and other family members had joined the exodus to Kansas. His parents would also move to Kansas, after inheriting property from his uncle, William.
Before that, however, Micheaux himself left his Illinois home in search of the usual fame and fortune, working his way to Chicago, where he found employment as a shoeshine boy, then becoming a Pullman porter on the railroad and eventually homesteading on the eastern edge of the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Micheaux didn’t stop there. He put all those experiences down on paper, formed his own publishing company, and sold copies of his books door-to-door. The autobiographical novels thus produced, “The Conquest” (1913) and “The Homesteader” (1917), would become the basis for his next entrepreneurial adventure: filmmaking.
“The Homesteader” provided the story for Micheaux’s first film release in 1919, the first feature length film produced by an African-American. Regrettably, most of Micheaux’s films are lost and only ten are commercially available, although all seven of his novels have survived and two are still in print. Micheaux himself wrote, produced, directed and marketed his films through a career that lasted until his death in 1951.
Micheaux considered two places to be home -- Great Bend, Kansas, and Harlem, New York. He frequently came back to Kansas for visits with his family and, upon his death, his remains were returned to Great Bend, where he is buried in the city cemetery among his family.
An advocate of the philosophies of self-improvement espoused by Booker T. Washington, Micheaux saw no reason why African-Americans could not succeed if they perservered. His determination still influences other black Americans, including modern filmmakers such as Spike Lee, Kevin Wilmott and Robert Townsend. For those readers who would like to see one of Micheaux’s early silent films and the work of other pioneer black filmmakers, Netflix is currently running Pioneers of African-American Cinema in honor of Black History Month. Included is Micheaux’s silent film Within Our Gates, which was filmed as a rebuttal to D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation.