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Oscar Micheaux - A Man Ahead of his Time

“Your self-image is so powerful it unwittingly becomes your destiny.”

Oscar Devereaux Micheaux

On January 2, 1884, Oscar Devereaux Micheaux, was born to Calvin Swan Micheaux and Belle Willingham, both former slaves, on a farm in Metropolis, Illinois, a town on the Ohio River. He was the fifth child of 13 children.

At the age of 17, Micheaux moved to Chicago to live with his older brother. Unsatisfied with his brother’s definition of the “good life”, working as a waiter, he found a place of his own, finding work as a shoeshine boy to support himself. In time, he would become a pullman porter on a major railroad. For an African American, this profession was deemed distinguished in that it offered stability, great pay, travel, and interaction with new people. By the time Micheaux left the position, he had seen most of the United States, saved two thousand, and made connects that would serve him in his future endeavors.

In 1905, Micheaux purchased two 160- acre tracts of land in Gregory County, South Dakota, becoming a homesteader. After a few good harvests, Micheaux took a wife, marrying Orlean McCracken. Unfortunately, this union was doomed to failure. After the birth of a stillborn son, Orlean’s feelings of loneliness, and the financial strain of expanding the farm, the two decide to separate. However, before they could divorce, Orlean was accidently trampled by a horse, leaving Michaeux a widower.

This life experience would be the inspiration for his first novel “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer”, published in 1913. He would sell it door to door throughout the Midwest and the south. Micheaux would publish two more books, including his most famous novel, “The Homesteader”.

After the failed proposal with African American filmmakers Nobel and George Johnson to produce “The Homesteader” into a film, Michaeux did it himself under his company, The Micheaux Film and Book Company. This film was the first full length feature produced by an African America and would be Michaeux’s breakout film, causing him to become a well-known writer and filmmaker. Michaeux would produce over 40 films.

In 1926, Micheaux would marry for the second time to Alice B. Russell. The two would remain married until his death. On March 26, 1951 while on a business trip in Charlotte, North Carolina, Micheaux died of heart failure. He is buried in Great Bend Cemetery in Great Bend, Kansas.

“Within Our Gates” (1920) is the picture I have chosen to showcase Mr. Micheaux’s writing, producing, and directing talents. The one hour, nineteen-minute film, starring the renowned African American actress, Evelyn Preer, is an emotional, dark piece, dealing with racism, crime, and lynchings. Many believe that this film was a direct response to the racism and stereotypes of African Americans depicted in “The Birth of a Nation” by D.W. Griffith. "Within Our Gates" displayed the true realities that African American men and women had to face in America, especially in the South. This film is not an easy watch, but it is definitely worth watching.

So, grab a hot cup of joe and slide back on the cushions of your couch. “Within Our Gates” can be seen on You Tube for free.

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