Written by Van Dora Williams, Associate Professor at Hampton University’s Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications. William’s expertise specifically regards documentary, international reporting, reconciliation, and community outreach studies.
The Rising Voices of Black Women: A Retrospective
100 years ago, the ground breaking film Birth of a Nation (BOAN), provided theater goers an impressive and encompassing experience and history lesson of Reconstruction and it also provided black women an opportunity to raise their voices in protest and criticize white education leaders in its portrayal of black life.
This was not the first time that black Americans had to defend themselves against racist rhetoric that pervaded the media. Through research I have learned that black Americans were never silent on issues relating to social, economic and educational issues. Black leaders were acutely aware of the long-term impact negative publicity can have on the community. In the early 20th century, there were few public venues for the black perspective to be shared with the general public. The black newspapers provided those extremely important perspectives to be shared with readers. Birth of a Nation provided the spark that permanently opened the door for black perspectives to be heard by white society. Some of the national black leaders voicing their opposition to BOAN were W.E.B DuBois, Booker T. Washington, and James Weldon Johnson. Adding to these voices were the prominent black newspapers, Baltimore’s Afro-American, Norfolk’s Journal and Guide, and Chicago’s Chicago Defender.
Throughout the film’s theatrical run, opposition from these great leaders and newspapers were loud and consistent. Another perspective not as well known but just as powerful were the voices of black women, specifically the colored women’s clubs. These organizations were known as a powerful, influential yet quiet force steadily working for “the uplift of the negro race”. Self-help organizations of this kind were not new to the black community as there is evidence of these organizations being active since the 1820s. These small groups agreed to join together as an organized corporation called the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs.
Janie Porter Barrett, the president of the Virginia chapter, lamented the need to show tangible results of “their quiet work in order to prove the advancements made by the race overall.” In 1915, the national organization found its opportunity. At the request of the new NAACP, the clubwomen engaged in a letter writing campaign to protest Hampton Institute’s Epilogue inclusion in BOAN. These letters represent black women raising their voices in protest to an institution dedicated to the ‘uplift of the negro race’ and it represents their introduction to the national stage advocating for control of the black image in media. To be sure, there were a few black women like Ida B. Wells Barnett and Mary McLeod Bethune who had a national presence and voice. But in this instance, a group of unknown women chose to assert their voices by writing to a highly respected man and criticize him for his actions. Through a 21st century lens, this may not be relevant or significant but in the early 20th century, this was considered significant and courageous.
Hampton Normal and Agriculture Institute was revered and known throughout the world for its extraordinary work with former slaves and Native Americans. The focus on industrial education as a way to address the ‘negro problem’ was an accepted norm among white philanthropists and politicians. While it had its critics within the African American community, industrial education was more popular with white society and Hampton Institute led the way. Once the strong protest against the BOAN became a national story, film censors approached Hampton Institute’s Principal, Frissell and asked if one of its promotional films could be added to the end of the film to offset the negative visual messaging of blacks. Frissell agreed thinking it was the only way to address this issue so the theater audience would not believe that former slaves have not progressed the last 50 years. He did not expect the strong and sustained response from the black community and the whites that supported them. The NAACP led the protests with calls for banning the film. Historians agree that the campaign for the ban was not successful but it did bring the NAACP into national prominence and was given a ‘proverbial’ seat at the table on race relations. The NAACP approached the Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs (CWC) to engage in a letter writing campaign criticizing Hampton Institute. This influential organization agreed and from November 1915 to February 1916, letters from the organization arrived practically every week.
It is within these protest letters that you will find the voice of black women demanding accountability from a white man and at the same time asserting their identity as educated black leaders in their community. While still remaining respectful of Frissell and Hampton Institute, the women clearly communicated their displeasure of the use of Hampton Institute in BOAN, their criticism of Frissell’s decision and revealed the expectations black women had for their community. This was a courageous thing to do in 1915. As an example, this letter is from the White Rose Industrial Association, a chapter of the colored women’s club:
My dear sir:
…We ask you to use your influence to remove the reel representing the work of Hampton from that infamous film called “The Birth of a Nation”. Surely you must realize that having the pictures of our young men and women, who are striving to attain the highest standards of citizenship, under your able training cannot but be injured by being portrayed in connection with such a nefarious picture as “The Birth of a Nation” proclaims.
Hoping you will at once take the necessary measures to have the Hampton film removed…
Another letter from Newport, RI states:
…Colored club women resent having the pictures of our young men and women who are striving to raise the standard of manhood and womanhood placed at the end of this film to offset the nefarious pictures shown in the beginning. Please let us hear from you in regard to it.
A New Haven, CT letter was more direct:
… we feel the picture representing the work of Hampton is merely a tool to cause the censors to think that the picture are our good points after having tried to hurt our morals as much as possible.
Every week for four months, Frissell received these letters and he responded to many of them. There is a sense of respect from Frissell for the women and the work that they did. He was well aware of the work and influence these women had in the community and he took the time to explain his decision. An example of his response is below:
… I have expressed my strong feeling both in public and in private, against this moving picture film; but when Mr. Wilcox, a trustee of Tuskegee Institute, asked me, since we could not stop the play, if it would not be wise to do what we could to counteract its harmful influence, I went with him to the censors to see what could be done. We were able to induce them to eliminate some of the most objectionable features, and to add some of the Hampton moving pictures which gave a wholly different idea of the intelligence and the progress of the negro. It did seem to me wise that the thousands of people who see this play should not go away feeling that the race is all wrong and incompetent. I may of course have been mistaken in this but such is my conviction…
The club women were not satisfied with this ‘conviction’ and continued to request Frissell remove the Hampton pictures from BOAN. With this letter writing campaign, the colored women’s clubs became a strong national voice for the black community. While the NAACP received much of the national attention for its campaigns against the film, this organization continued to work quietly to address the effects of the film on the black and white community. White women’s organizations joined with the CWC to present a united front against the influences of the film by working with local churches and community groups to debunk the racial prejudice in the South. The work of the CWC in 1915 provided that ‘tangible proof’ Janie Porto Barrett wanted for the organization. Through my 21st century lens, I believe that this ‘quiet’ work has done more to influence southern communities toward racial tolerance and provided a foundational framework for the Civil Rights Movement fifty years later.
Anderson, Silone. Letter. “To Dr. H.B. Frissell.” Letter, November 29, 1915. Birth of a Nation Folder. Hampton University Archives.
Barrett, Jane Porto. “Negro Women’s Clubs and the Community.” Southern Workman 39, no. 1 (January 1910): 33–34.
Benton, E.L. Letter. “To Dr. H.B. Frissell.” Letter, December 9, 1915. Birth of a Nation Folder. Hampton University Archives.
Fleener, Nickie. “Answering Film with Film: The Hampton Epilogue, a Positive Alternative to the Negative Black Stereotypes Presented in the Birth of a Nation.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 7, no. 4 (1980): 400–425.
Frissell, H.B. Letter. “To Jessie A. Johnson.” Letter, November 23, 1915. Frissell Letters, Aug. 16, 1915 – Jan. 6, 1916. Hampton University Archives.
McGuire, W.D. “Discussion at Executive Committee Meeting.” Minutes. New York, NY: National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, April 19, 1915. Box 118, Executive Committe Papers, New York Public Library. National Board of Review of Motion Pictures Archive.
Shaw, Stephanie J. “Black Club Women and the Creation of the National Association of Colored Women.” Journal of Women’s History 3, no. 2 (1991): 11–25. doi:10.1353/jowh.2010.0065.
Southern Women and Race Cooperation: A Story of the Memphis Conference, October Sixth and Seventh, 1920. Atlanta, 1921. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/nc01.ark:/13960/t2c83hr8k.
Stone, M.L. Letter. “To H.B. Frissell.” Letter, November 29, 1915. Reviews of Birth of A Nation Box. Hampton University Archives.
 Shaw, “Black Club Women and the Creation of the National Association of Colored Women,” 13. Examples of women’s groups in the north and south are highlighted in this article.
 Barrett, “Negro Women’s Clubs and the Community.”
 Fleener, “Answering Film with Film.”
 McGuire, “Discussion at Executive Committee Meeting.”
 Stone, “To H.B. Frissell.”
 Anderson, “To Dr. H.B. Frissell.”
 Benton, “To Dr. H.B. Frissell.”
 Frissell, “To Jessie A. Johnson.”
 Southern Women and Race Cooperation.