Black History Month, February, 2016

The Norwich African American Community Takes on “The Clansman,” 1909

Last week, a brand new Sundance film called “The Birth of a Nation” made the news when a distributor paid a cool $17.5 million for the worldwide rights to show it (Siegal). The new movie, directed by Nate Parker, tells the story of the most successful slave rebellion in U.S. history.  It has a provocative title that is meant as a refutation of the politics and historical narrative of a 1915 movie of the same name. The release of the new film is timed to take advantage of the one hundredth anniversary of D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist epic, a film that attempted to rewrite the history of the period of Reconstruction to the benefit of Southern elites and to the detriment of an African American population struggling for dignity and human rights.

Parker’s 2015 film, of course, is not the first attempt on the part of African American community to repudiate the revisionist story of slavery and Reconstruction told by Griffiths.   In Connecticut, such protests really took off in 1909, when the stage play that inspired the Griffiths film came to town.  That play was called “The Clansman.”  It was crafted by Thomas Dixon, author of a novel of the same name, who hoped to convince the Northern public of the “awful suffering of the white man during the dreadful Reconstruction period” and to proclaim the need for white supremacy.  It was performed by two different companies to enthusiastic crowds around the country beginning in 1905 and this timing meant that it was associated in the public mind with the Atlanta race riot of 1906, an infamous eruption of violence in which white mobs killed dozens of African Americans (Collins).  Thus, performances of the “Clansman” were deeply feared by the African American community and prompted some very significant organizing in the years between the formation of the Niagara Movement in 1905 and the founding of the national NAACP in 1909 and various local NAACP chapters thereafter.  By 1909, the Connecticut African American community was fully prepared to respond to theatrical openings around the state.

In the autumn of 1909, Norwich was the site of one of these important organizing efforts. On September 26, the Norwich Bulletin reported that a large African American protest meeting had been held (“Colored People Hold Mass Meeting”).  The Reverends A. W. Addams, D. W. Cannon, and W. H. Eley were joined on the platform there by Lucius Dabney of the Colored Odd Fellows, Josephine Dabney of the House of Ruth, and Miss Emma Mints from the Louise Demortie Club.  The audience heard a report-back from H.D. McKnight, who had been assigned to go to New London to review the play well before it was to be shown in Norwich.  McKnight said that the play was worse than had been previously reported.  The crowd seemed to agree that the “Clansman” was written to “destroy the peaceable relations between the races in Norwich.”  A second mass meeting was called for Mt. Calvary church the next night.

Norwich Bulletin, September 27, 1909

Norwich Bulletin, September 27, 1909

The mass protest meetings followed a three-hour hearing held on September 24 by the Amusement Committee of the Norwich Court of Common Council (“Committee Reserves Decision”). At the hearing, Attorney A. A. Browning argued before the mayor and corporation counsel that the play should not be shown in the city because its purpose was to disgrace and scandalize the Negro race and that it could incite evil, race hatred, and contention.  According to the Norwich Bulletin of September 25, 1909, Browning noted that in other cities, the performances led to events that were “against the good order and well being of the community.”  The field secretary of the Coloniel [sic] Baptist convention of New England, Rev. Addams, testified that there were 700-800 African Americans in the city and that they should not suffer the humiliation and injury that would come with a Norwich performance.  The Bulletin reporter said that Addams “didn’t consider that Tillman [former Redshirt commander Benjamin Tillman] could hurt them as much in 100 lectures as one performance of The Clansman.”  Referring to the kind of discrimination in Norwich that could be inflamed, Rev. Addams told the story of a mill hand that had lost her job because the white girls threatened to strike unless she was discharged.

Norwich Bulletin, September 25, 1909

Norwich Bulletin, September 25, 1909

The business manager of “The Clansman” testified, in opposition, that very few African Americans attended the performances and there had been few protests. In addition, he said that the play was shut down only in Philadelphia and Newport.   In an article on September 27 entitled  “Committee Allows Presentation of ‘Clansman,’” the Bulletin reported that the Amusement Committee had gone to see the play in New London, found nothing objectionable, and would allow it to open in Norwich.

Norwich Bulletin, Sept. 27, 1909.

Norwich Bulletin, Sept. 27, 1909.

The Norwich debate was only one of many that went on in Connecticut cities about “The Clansman.” The African American community experience around this play is a bit of state history yet to be fully explored.  It might be studied in conjunction with the 1910 censorship battle that raged in Connecticut when many Connecticut mayors banned the showing of the fight film in which African American heavyweight Jack Johnson defeats James Jeffries.  Only a few African American newspapers, like the Broad Ax, it seems, pointed up the irony that the very cities that banned the cinematic vision of Black power exemplified by the Johnson film had only a year before refused to censor Dixon’s dramatization of white supremacy.

As the historian Steven J. Diner reminds us in his treatment of the Progressive Era, for many African Americans, the first decades of the twentieth century “seemed in many respects the worst of times” (p.145). The recently digitized Norwich Bulletin and Bridgeport Evening Farmer runs for this period will allow the history of the efforts of African Americans in Connecticut to achieve civil rights to be told much more fully.  Chronicling America, which includes many African American newspapers from around the country, will allow researchers to look at that Connecticut history in the context of African American organizing and commentary nationwide.

 

For Further Research

Collins, Ann V. All Hell Broke Loose: American Race Riots from the Progressive Era through World War I. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2012, pp. 21-26.

“Colored People Hold a Mass Meeting,” Norwich Bulletin, September 27, 1909, p. 5. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1909-09-27/ed-1/seq-5/>

“Committee Reserves Decision: Three Hour’s Hearing on the Protest Against the Appearance of the ‘The Clansman’ at Broadway Theater,” Norwich Bulletin, September 25, 1909, pg. 7. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1909-09-25/ed-1/seq-7/>

“Committee Will Allow Presentation of ‘Clansman,’” Norwich Bulletin, September 27, 1909, pg. 1. <http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82014086/1909-09-27/ed-1/seq-1/>.

Diner, Steven J. “African Americans’ Quest for Freedom,” in A Very Different Age: Americans of the Progressive Era. New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.

Inscoe, John C. “’The Clansman’ on Stage and Screen,” North Carolina Historical Review, April 1987, pp. 139-161. Accessed on January 26, 2016 at <http://www.jstor.org/stable/23518685?seq=14#page_scan_tab_contents> from the State Library premises.

Siegal, Tatiana and Rebecca Ford, “Sundance: “Birth of a Nation’ Sets Record With $17.5M Sale to Fox Searchlight,” The Hollywood Reporter, Jan. 26, 2016. Accessed January 29, 2016 at http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/sundance-birth-a-nation-sets-857365

Stokes, Melvyn. “The Clansman as a Play,” in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time.” Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 47-53.

 

A Few Teaching Resources for Related Work

Edsitement, “Birth of a Nation, the NAACP, and the Balancing of Rights.” http://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/birth-nation-naacp-and-balancing-rights. Accessed Dec. 30, 2015.

Mintz, Steven. “Birth of a Nation,” Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/reconstruction/resources/birth-nation . Accessed Dec. 30, 2015. [Free to K-12 teachers and students.]

PBS Learning Media, “The Birth of a Nation, http://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/bf10.socst.us.prog.birthnation/the-birth-of-a-nation/ .   Accessed Dec. 30, 2015.

Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, “Birth of a Nation and Black Protest. http://chnm.gmu.edu/episodes/the-birth-of-a-nation-and-black-protest/ . Accessed Dec. 30, 2015.

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