Black Oklahoma of the 1920s on film

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Joel Blain emails to tell me about an amazing archival find. Oklahoma historian Currie Ballard has found 33 cans of motion picture film documenting life in the African-American community in Oklahoma in the 1920s. The American Heritage Places website has a page with information about the discovery and a few short clips:

The film shows them thriving in the years after the infamous Tulsa Riot of 1921, in which white mobs destroyed that city's historic black Greenwood district, which was known as the Black Wall Street of America. Through the flickering eloquence of silent film we see a people resilient beyond anyone's imagining, visiting one another's country homes, parading through downtown Muskogee in some two dozen Packards, crowding an enormous church in Tulsa not long after the riots, during a gathering of the National Baptist Convention.

Indeed, this extraordinary archive exists because someone at the powerful National Baptist Convention assigned the Rev. S. S. Jones, a circuit preacher, to document the glories of Oklahoma's black towns, Guthrie, Muskogee, and Langston. Reverend Jones surely has a way with a camera as he comes in close on the animated faces of his neighbors, sweeps wide to track black cowboys racing across a swath of ranch land, or vertically pans up the skyscraper-high oil derricks owned by the Ragsdale family, whose wells produced as much as a thousand barrels a day. We know the names of these families and others because typed labels accompany each of the eight-minute cans, and onscreen titles introduce the various segments.

But this treasure trove of film is at risk, and Currie Ballard needs help in preserving it:

Ballard admits that he mortgaged his life away when the opportunity arose to acquire this treasure. Now he's hoping to find an appropriate institution to take it over and transfer the highly unstable film to disk, a costly operation. He wants the world to view this material, to make people aware that only 60 years after emancipation, and in the shadow of one of the nation's most violent and destructive race riots, these people persevered and built anew. Perhaps someone out there, watching this, right now, will take the lead.

For more information contact Wyatt Houston Day, a bookseller and archivist who has been working with Currie Ballard. He's at

If you can help, or know someone who can, get in touch.

UPDATE 2017/07/03: The film archive rescued by Ballard is now part of the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The Solomon Sir Jones Films, 1924-1928, are available for viewing online.


Wow, Michael. These are incredible. What a find! It would be great to see a longer documentary from someone using the footage.

DJH said:

The Library of Congress has a Film Preservation Unit
The History Detectives show on PBS had a segment featuring several weeks ago

DJH said:

A further note, the History Detectives has had several segments involving Oklahomans and Tulsa. A Tulsa pawn store clerk came across a pocket watch that might have been given by Wyatt earp to Doc Holliday. An arrowhead was discovered in the Arkansas River (or closeby). Last season, a picture of Geronimo was traced back to the Wild West Show Buffalo Bill had in Pawnee. Even the segment on silent film linked above is about an OKie.

It is a great show to watch with kids. They can learn about history and the investigative process with not near as much editorializing as you might expect from PBS.

Alpha said:

O what a fine, this is like finding great treasure, thank you soooooooooooooooooooooooo very much..

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 16, 2006 12:52 PM.

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