Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., now has its own “silver screen.”
An impressive collection of films about African-Americans is now housed on the campus and will be presented beginning in February to commemorate Black History Month.
The 89 motion pictures, released between 1915 and 1969 and recently converted to DVD from reels, are part of the memorabilia collection of Washington, D.C., toxicologist Dr. Lewis Brown and his wife, environmental chemist Dr. Shamira Brown. The couple met as undergraduates at Dillard University in New Orleans and both earned graduate degrees at Southern.
Some of the stars’ names will be familiar to audiences — Paul Robeson, Dorothy Dandridge, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, Lena Horn. Others may be more obscure — Eddie Anderson, Clarence Muse, Ethel Waters, Herbert Jeffries, Fredi Washington, Spencer Williams. It is largely because of the latter group that the Browns are so passionate about sharing their collection.
“Most of these are movies that won’t be seen on TV. They have been thrown away,” Lewis Brown says. “Most young people don’t know anything about these people, and if they have heard about them, they have heard a lot of negative things. They should open their minds and see the whole picture.”
At 41, Brown isn’t old enough to have seen most of these films when they were initially released. For him, it has been an ongoing history lesson, especially learning about silent filmmaker Oscar Micheaux and director Eugene Jackson, a distant relative of Brown’s and a co-star of the TV show “Julia” with Diahann Carroll.
The Browns made the donation to Southern’s history department last fall, and more recently sent much of the same material to Dillard. Lewis Brown says they also are donating 79 episodes of the famous but controversial TV show “Amos and Andy” to Southern’s New Orleans campus. The NAACP has strongly objected to the stereotypical characters in the show, but Brown says “Amos and Andy” — as well as the opposition to it — represents an important part of history that should be preserved. “This is an example of something that needs to be discussed instead of hidden or thrown away,” he says.
Despite having careers in science, the couple is immersed in Black history and culture. Brown is also a gospel radio show host. “We both have relatives who were involved in music and acting,” he says, explaining that Spencer Williams, Andy in the “Amos and Andy” series, was a cousin. “It turned out that he also directed and starred in a number of films.”
One of Shamira Brown’s relatives was the 1930’s actress Fredi Washington, best known for “Emperor Jones” with Paul Robeson in 1933 and “Imitation of Life” in 1934.
While at Dillard, the couple realized that both families had passed along stories, photos and memorabilia of their famous relatives, so the collection grew and now includes posters and written material about the films, cast members and the social climate at the time.
Along with the donated DVDs is a detailed list that contains much of that supplemental information.
The eclectic array of films includes comedies such as “Watermelon Man,” (1969) with Godfrey Cambridge; numerous dramas, even Micheaux’s silent “Body and Soul” (1924); westerns such as “Bronze Buckaroo” (1938) starring Herbert Jeffries; and dozens of musicals, among them “Basin Street Revue” with the legendary Lionel Hampton, Sarah Vaughn, Nat “King” Cole and Count Basie.
“We are so excited to be able to do this,” Shamira Brown says. “These films are a part of history, and really, a part of the civil rights movement.”
Dr. Dorothy Smith, dean of Dillard’s college of general studies, agrees. “This is an invaluable contribution to our campus and community,” she says.
Smith hasn’t made any specific plans for screening the films yet, but she says her goal is to make sure they are circulated throughout the campus and made available to the New Orleans community.
In a way, Smith is Lewis Brown’s inspiration for his collection. “I taught Lewis history at Dillard,” she recalls. “I remember him well. He was very studious and very interested in history. You never know how much impact you are having on students.”