Prologue Magazine

The USIA Motion Picture Collection and African American History 

A Reference Review

Federal Records and African American History (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, No. 2)

By Donald Roe

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) houses one of the largest collections of factual films and footage in the world. The act establishing the National Archives in 1934 (48 Stat. L. 1122) allows the agency to accession and preserve motion pictures and sound recordings that document important events relating to the history of the United States. Since the 1930s, NARA has accepted for preservation motion picture footage that federal agencies produced and acquired and donations of historically valuable film footage from private donors. Among the federal motion picture archives in NARA's holdings are permanently valuable visual and audio records from the United States Information Agency (USIA).

This article is a review of USIA motion picture holdings in the custody of NARA relating to African Americans. It is not intended to be an exhaustive survey, but rather provides an overview of an importance source of motion picture film footage on African Americans. Furthermore, it serves as a point of reference and introduction for those seeking to research USIA films on African Americans. The film titles (with film numbers) cited and subjects described as examples should help the researcher to understand the breadth and scope of the collection. As USIA retires and transfers its audiovisual records to NARA, the volume of material relating to African Americans will increase.

When Debra L. Newman published her excellent Black History: A Guide to Civilian Records in the National Archives in 1984, notably absent was any mention of the motion picture records of USIA. Although NARA had accessioned a large collection of USIA motion picture footage in the late 1970s, by the time the guide went to press, appraisal, film inspection, preservation work, and arrangement and description projects had been only partially completed. Therefore, pertinent and accurate information relating to the films about African Americans in USIA film records was unavailable. In addition, the United States Information and Educational Exchange Act of 1948 (22 U.S.C. 1431), which provided the legislative mandate for USIA, prohibited the domestic dissemination of its materials. The law effectively prevented the American public from accessing and acquiring copies of films that their tax money had financed, although the films were available at NARA for researchers to preview and study.

Since 1984, NARA's Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Branch has made significant progress in processing USIA films and making them available to the public. The modification of the 1948 act (Public Law 101-246 [104 Stat. L. 49]) to allow domestic release of USIA materials twelve years from dissemination abroad or, if not distributed, twelve years after preparation has greatly enhanced their accessibility. The change resulted from a desire by the American people for less "secrecy" in government and the need to reflect on the "propaganda" value of the USIA film program in the post-cold war era. The amended law makes it possible for the public to access and use some seventeen thousand unique reels of motion picture films, two thousand videotape productions, and eighteen thousand sound recordings that have been appraised as permanently valuable audiovisual records and transferred to the custody of NARA. While scholars in general have lauded this change in policy, it is of particular importance for filmmakers, historians, sociologists, and others seeking access to motion picture footage pertaining to African American history, culture, and life. The film records of USIA significantly increase the volume of film footage available on African Americans in NARA's holdings.

Scholars researching NARA's card catalogs, computer databases, and other motion picture finding aids covering the years prior to 1950 will find reference to a number of brief clips and short newsreel stories on blacks. While these are indispensable in documenting the activities of African Americans, motion pictures in NARA's holdings relating primarily to African Americans are relatively sparse for this period. Federal agencies produced only a few documentaries and training films on blacks prior to World War II. Among them are a Works Progress Administration film, We Work Again, 1937 (69.6); a Federal Extension Service film, Helping Negroes to Become Better Farmers, 1938 (33.156); a Department of Agriculture film, Three Counties Against Syphilis, 1938 (90.12); a National Youth Administration film, National Youth Administration and Negro Youth, 1940 (119.11); and a Department of State film, Henry Brown, Farmer, 1943 (16.665), and several others. In the years before 1950, federal agencies also produced a few important films about blacks in the military including Training of Colored Troops, 1917–1918 [rev. 1936] (111 H 1211); The Negro Soldier, 1944 (111 OF 51); The Negro Sailor, 1945 (80 MN 4360); Wings for This Man, 1945 (342 SFP 151); and Teamwork, 1946 (111 OF 14), a film about interracial cooperation in the army that anticipates an integrated military.

NARA's motion picture holdings relating to African Americans are far more extensive after 1950. A majority are films that USIA produced or acquired and include documentaries, information films, biographies, unedited historical films, and news-story type footage. In fact, there are more films relating specifically to African Americans among USIA records than in any other film collection at NARA. Among the subjects covered are civil rights, politics, music and dance, art, literature, sports, women, life in urban areas, and more.

The scholar interested in civil rights, for example, will find more coverage among the motion picture records of USIA than in the film records of any other federal agency or donated material in NARA's holdings. USIA produced one of the best documentaries on the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom. The March, 1963 (306.00765), documents the wide participation of black and white Americans in the historic event beginning with the preparations and concluding at the Lincoln Memorial with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech. A related film, The March on Washington, 1963 (306.03394), provides an interpretation of the march and its significance. Hollywood Round Table, 1963 (306.01757), features a discussion about the march that includes actor Sidney Poitier and novelist James Baldwin. In addition, Guggenheim Productions made Nine from Little Rock, 1964 (306.05160), for USIA; this acclaimed film received an Academy Award in 1965 for "Best Documentary Film." It shows the desegregation crisis at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. This is the only edited film about the crisis in NARA holdings, although several reels (111 LC 41036, 41051, and 41211) of unedited U.S. Signal Corps historical footage on the crisis are available. One of the stories in Five Cities of June, 1963 (306.05932), shows Vivian Malone attempting to integrate the University of Alabama. April Aftermath, 1968 (306.06573), documents the violence that occurred after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968, and shows Americans of all classes and races mourning his death. Another film, The Dream of King's, 1968 (306.01409), explores the affection and admiration black and white leaders had for Dr. King as expressed in their tributes to him following his assassination. The film juxtaposes King's speeches and philosophy with the rioting that took place in Washington, D.C., and other cities after his death.

Other films relating to civil rights include black voting in Atlanta, a civil rights rally in Chicago, the "Poor People's Campaign," civil rights progress since 1954, civil rights 1965, and civil rights leaders at the White House. Furthermore, activist Jesse Jackson, founder and director of People United to Save Humanity (Operation PUSH), speaks about busing to achieve racial integration in public schools, welfare, drugs, "Operation PUSH," and the future of the civil rights movement in an interview filmed in 1976 for USIA's "Press Conference U.S.A." (306.04258). I Am A Man, 1971 (306.05188), presents a portrait of three black leaders: Ernest Green, Cleveland mayor Carl Stokes, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. There is footage of Martin Luther King, Jr., receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in Sweden and with Ambassador Arthur Goldberg at the United Nations. There is also footage of civil rights activists Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, Coretta Scott King, Ralph Bunche, Andrew Young, Harry Belafonte, and Benjamin Hooks.

Those interested in music and dance will find that the film records of USIA provide coverage unavailable in other NARA holdings. There are filmed interviews of musicians, singers, and dancers; films on the lives of black performers; and performances of gospel, jazz, blues, folk, and opera music. One Man—Lionel Hampton, 1972 ("One Man" series), takes a look at the life of the legendary vibraphonist, composer, and entertainer whose work over the past forty years has profoundly affected the jazz music genre. Moreover, In Performance at the White House—Gospel Music, 1983 (306.9381), part of a series of films on musical performances that President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, usually hosted at the White House, originates from historic Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and is narrated by opera diva Leontyne Price. The program features the Howard University Choir, Shiloh Baptist Church Choir, the Richard Smallwood Singers, and others singing African American spirituals and gospel music.

Arts America—Fred Sanders and the Memphis Blues, 1987 (306 AAM.16), and Arts America—Nap Turner Sings the Blues, 1987 (306 AAM.25), explore the world of blues music, while New Trends in Afro-American Music, 1982 (306.9535), featuring performances by Hugh Masekela, Chuck Brown, the Heath Brothers, and the vocal group Earth, Wind, and Fire, examines the fusion of African and American music forms. Other black musicians are seen performing in film series like "Jazz Casual" and "Jazz U.S.A.," a series of films about the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival that feature saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley; pianist Oscar Peterson; bassist Ray Brown; singers Dakota Staton, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker; and pianist and composer Eubie Blake. There are also highlights from a White House party for Duke Ellington on his seventieth birthday, during which President Richard Nixon presented him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Other USIA films include footage of Marian Anderson, Josh White, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Elvin Jones, and Mahalia Jackson.

Those interested in African American dance will appreciate the informative documentary Rocka My Soul, 1967 (306.07408), with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company performing dance routines in traditional and contemporary styles, using jazz, blues, and gospel music. Moreover, choreographer Ailey discusses his motivation, work, and background. Similarly, The Chuck Davis Dance Company, 1980 (306.9185), captures African American dancers in rehearsal performing "Buffalo Soldiers," a contemporary dance to the music of Quincy Jones, and "Sea Rituals," a traditional African dance sequence with African drums. Equally energetic is Arts America—The Philadelphia Tap Dancers, 1986 (306 AAM.45), which presents revered tap dancer Lavaughn Robinson and fellow "hoofers" Sandra Janoff and Germaine Ingram in a dazzling tribute to tap and tap masters Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, John Bubbles, Peg Leg Bates, and Fred Astaire.

The film records of the USIA also document the growing political power of African Americans. Coverage includes Jesse Jackson's emergence as a significant national political figure. There is footage of Douglas Wilder, the lieutenant governor of Virginia and one of the most powerful black politicians in the country, making a statement supporting the drive to make the birthday of Martin Luther King a national holiday. A related film, Martin Luther King—The Making of a Holiday, 1989 (306.9478), reviews the life of Dr. King and examines the political movement, headed by singer Stevie Wonder and Dr. King's widow, Coretta Scott King, to make his birthday a national holiday. Black voter registration is the subject of a film that shows noted black political scientist and commentator Ronald Walters discussing this topic of growing concern and importance.

One Man—Walter Washington, 1971 ("One Man" series), is a tribute to the life of the first black mayor of the District of Columbia and looks at his solutions to the city's problems and his effort to bring the black and white communities together. Profile: Tom Bradley, 1975 (306.06839), presents a day in the life of the black mayor of Los Angeles, a political moderate with a predominantly white constituency. One Man—Wilson Riles, 1972 ("One Man" series), provides a portrait of a black educator who, campaigning on his record as a competent and professional educator, is elected superintendent of public instruction in California, a state with a white majority. In Press Conference USA: William Coleman, 1975 (306.04240), the first black secretary of the Department of Transportation, speaks with reporters about various transportation problems and the role of government and private industry in seeking solutions. There is also footage of Robert Weaver, who was the first African American named to a cabinet-level post in 1966, when President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed him as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Film footage of Carl Rowan, former ambassador to Finland and the first African American director of USIA, includes Rowan's appearance before the U.S. Senate and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his trip to Taipei and Vietnam. Special Report—Mickey Leland, 1989 (306.9811), is not only a tribute to late Congressman George Thomas "Mickey" Leland, who was killed in an airplane crash in Ethiopia, but also reflects the growth of black political power in international affairs. Congressman Leland was killed as he sought, in his capacity as chair of the House Select Committee on Hunger, the means to provide food for people in war-ravaged Ethiopia.

Those seeking film footage on African American athletes will find some interesting biographies, interviews, and news-story footage among USIA film records. Included are a short biography, Althea Gibson—Tennis Champion, 1957 (306.01199), about the first black to win a tennis title at Wimbledon and a U.S. singles title at Forest Hills, and Wilma Rudolph—Olympic Champion, 1961 (306.05247), a short film on the late, great track and field star who won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Footage on other track and field athletes include in-depth interviews with Olympic gold medal winners: sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis and hurdler Edwin Moses. Another Olympic gold medal-winning hurdler, Hayes Jones, is the subject of One Man—Hayes Jones, 1968 ("One Man" series), a film about his work as commissioner of recreation in New York City, where he supervised the administration of eight hundred parks. The Rafer Johnson Story, 1962 (306.06226), covers the story of the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion and how he survived a career-threatening injury to become the best athlete in the world. Researchers will find of particular interest his fierce competition with follow decathlete, friend, and UCLA teammate, C. K. Yang.

The USIA film collection contains film footage on boxing greats Joe Frazier and Archie Moore, who overcame significant adversity to achieve success in athletics. There is also footage of Nigerian-born boxing champion Dick Tiger, who often fought and lived in the United States. In Press Conference USA—Arthur Ashe, 1975 (306.04265), the first black man to win a tennis title at Wimbledon and a civil rights activist, talks about professional tennis and the black athlete. Ashe also answers questions about how he is accepted around the world as a black man in a predominantly white sport. There is also footage of the Harlem Globetrotters and footage of baseball great Henry Aaron hitting his historic 715th home run to break Babe Ruth's lifetime home-run record.

As a result of the women's rights movement, more attention has been focused on the contributions of women to American history, culture, and life. The motion picture records of USIA reflect this change more than the film records of most other federal agencies in NARA's holdings. There are numerous USIA films that document the achievements and contributions of American women, including African American women. Among them is footage of Edith Sampson, who became the first African American woman to be appointed to a post at the United Nations when President Harry Truman selected her for a position as a UN delegate in 1950. In the documentary Accomplished Women, 1975 (306.09028), Shirley Chisholm, the first African American congresswoman, and poet Nikki Giovanni are two of several noted women who speak about their lives and the aspirations of women. There is also footage of contralto Marian Anderson and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and an interview with singer, actress, and "Ambassador of Good Will" Pearl Bailey.

Poor, southern, black women traditionally have been an obscure group in American history, but this is also changing. Maude Wahlman, a folklore scholar at the University of Mississippi, has been instrumental in making known to the world the art of a group of African American quilt makers. Their story is told in African American Quilters' Exhibit, 1985 (306.9049). Another documentary, Run to Life, 1980 (306.9709), tells the story of a little-known, but well-respected, black woman, Dr. Dorothy Brown, who though orphaned, became a doctor, professor, and Tennessee state legislator. And in Thematic Reel No. 9—Vignettes of Black America, 1979 (306.9860), two of the vignettes relate to black women with unusual interests. Jadie David, shown doing a dangerous stunt, is one of only a few Hollywood stunt women, and Professor Eileen Southern, head of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University at the time, is also an authority on music of the Renaissance period.

The Harmon Foundation Film Collection (200 HF) housed at NARA contains important historical footage, primarily unedited and silent, of black art and artists such as Hale Woodruff, Palmer Hayden, and James Porter during the 1930s and 1940s. The USIA film collection provides additional film footage on African Americans and art, including black photographers. There is footage showing an Afro-American session in arts and crafts, an Afro-American Art Exhibit, and the Institute of Negro Art. Bernie Casey—Black Artist, 1973 (306.9144), provides a profile of a remarkable, but little-known, artist who at one time played professional football and who has acted in several Hollywood films. Casey talks about his work and how his art reflects his everyday experiences. Important also is a documentary, First World Festival of Negro Arts, 1967 (306.07725), that renowned African American filmmaker William Greaves made for USIA. The film chronicles the activities, including musical performances and exhibits of art work, at an international festival for black artists in Dakar, Senegal. A similar film about black artists, Creativity and the Negro, 1966 (306.01337), shows a gathering of African American artists at an art festival held at Rockford College, Illinois, in 1966. The film, My Father Gordon Parks, 1969 (306.08063A), takes a behind-the-scenes look at the famous photographer as he directs and produces a major Hollywood film based on his novel The Learning Tree. The style of photographer Roland Freeman, who uses his camera to explore African American life as he travels through rural and urban areas, is presented in the film Country Road, City Pavements With Roland L. Freeman, 1983 (306.9212).

The films that USIA produced and acquired to carry out its mission are diverse and, as they relate to African Americans, document far more subjects than are covered in this reference review. The variety of USIA productions encompasses a film from the "First Friday" series on Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who is interviewed about his job as director of Civil Aviation Security for the Department of Transportation; One Man—Reverend Leon Sullivan, 1969 ("One Man" series), a film about an important community self-help advocate who organized the Opportunity Industrialization Center to train school dropouts and other urban youth; the documentary Six American Families—The Georges of New York, 1985 (306.9778), which tells the story of an African American middle-class family that, though successful, still feels the oppressive restraints of racism; and Two Black Churches, 1975 (306.9921), a film about black religion as practiced in Rose Hill, Mississippi, and New Haven, Connecticut, that features rural baptisms, sermons, and faith healing.

Research in USIA's motion picture records should include reviewing films that the agency acquired from other sources. These are numerous and complement USIA films. Typical of these films are Take a Giant Step, 1968 (306.03439), produced by Sunburst Films, which examines the efforts made to revitalize the Watts community in Los Angeles three years after the devastating racial riot of 1965; Sweet Auburn—Coming Home—Gift to America, 1988 (306.9074), a film on the history and development of black Auburn Street in Atlanta, Georgia, that USIA acquired from America's Black Forum television series; The Blue Dashiki—Jeffrey and His City Neighbors, 1969 (306.07917), an Encyclopedia Britannica film about a young boy who learns about his cultural heritage through saving money to purchase a dashiki from an African shop; and Of Black America—In Search of a Past, 1968 (306.06416), a CBS film that reports on the experiences of three black students who visit Africa in search of their cultural heritage and then compares life in America with life in Africa.

One should also scrutinize USIA's many program film series for pertinent footage on blacks, particularly the "Television Satellite" series (306 TVSF), for it has numerous short, news-type stories about blacks and African American subjects. Included are stories on artist Jacob Lawrence, Gen. Colin Powell, ice skater Debbie Thomas, boxers Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, choreographer Alvin Ailey, jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr., blues singer Fats Domino, and basketball stars David Robinson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Among the more interesting subjects covered are the Dance Theater of Harlem and the Harlem Boys' Choir, a black cowboy, the Black Mayors' Conference in Denver, Washington, D.C.'s famous "Florida Avenue Grill," the Duke Ellington Archive, black churches, and many more.

Other program film series might feature more complete stories about African Americans. "Correspondente Internacional" (306 CI), has in-depth stories on pro-football star Bobby Mitchell talking about violence in football and blacks in sports and Della Reese talking about her career, family, and her relationship with Mahalia Jackson. And "Adventure—Africa, No. 036" (306 AA), has a story on the music of South African musician and expatriate Hugh Masekela, who is shown with his band at "Whiskey A-Go-Go," a popular club in Los Angeles. Similar stories are found in the series "Electronic Dialogue" (306 ED).

It is the policy of NARA to keep only the English version of a film unless a production is originally produced in a foreign language. Occasionally, and more often with USIA program film series, the only available version is a foreign language version. For example, the "Correspondente Internacional" series (306 CI), was produced in English and Portuguese, but the "Candilejas" series (306 C) was produced only in Spanish, and Issue No. 7 has footage on singer Roy Hamilton and Duke Ellington. So it is possible that on occasion the sound in a film relating to African Americans may be in Spanish, Portuguese, French, or less frequently, some other foreign language.

The USIA motion picture records and acquired films relating to African Americans in NARA's holdings are numerous and growing. USIA annually retires some of its older motion picture files and offers them to NARA for appraisal and permanent retention. It is worth noting that these film records also contain a large number of films on Africa and native Africans. This makes the USIA motion picture collection a primary and indispensable source of film footage on Africans and African Americans.

In general, USIA motion picture records and all related, extant textual records are available for viewing, study, and duplication. However, before a USIA film is distributed, duplicated, or used as stock footage domestically, twelve years must have elapsed since it was disseminated overseas or, if not distributed, twelve years after its preparation. This prohibition does not prevent researchers from screening, in NARA's motion picture research room, any film that USIA produced or acquired. Researchers wishing to purchase a copy of a film in the USIA film collection should be aware that there may be other restrictions in addition to the twelve-year limitation. These are mainly concerned with the copyright or proprietary status of footage and underlying performance rights. In some instances it may be necessary to obtain a clearance before a copy can be made. Researchers should contact the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001, for the specific guidelines governing obtaining copies of films.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.