Greenwood: September 2006 Archives

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.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Greenwood category from September 2006.

Greenwood: May 2007 is the next archive.

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