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Living Black History on Film: The Remarkable Movies of Solomon Sir Jones

by Sergio
July 4, 2014 4:07 PM
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Solomon Sir Jones

This being the 4th of July holiday weekend, where we celebrate our country’s history, what better time to reflect on African American history, which is, of course, the very definition of American history.

In this specific case, African American history, life and culture as seen through the all embracing and compassing eyes of Solomon Sir Jones.

The Reverend Jones (1869-1936) was a Baptist minister, who established, or was the pastor of some 15 churches in his lifetime, a businessman and an avid home movie filmmaker. The son of ex-slaves, he was born in Tennessee and grew up in the South, before moving to Oklahoma, where he lived for most of his life. And yet, Jones was quite remarkable for any person, black or white, in this country, during this period of the early 20th century - an extraordinary well traveled man.

Not only did he travel throughout the South, but also the Midwest, the East Coast, Colorado and even overseas, to France, England, Palestine, Switzerland, Italy, Northern Africa, and Germany. And wherever he went, during the years 1924-28,  he took his trusty home movie camera.

And at a time when making home movies was a rare and unaffordable pastime for the overwhelming majority of Americans, the fact that a black person was traveling around the U.S., shooting films that captured black life and society, as well as life and culture in other countries, made the pastor from Oklahoma a true pioneer, not only as a filmmaker, but also as a sociologist and an ethnographer.

Though, no doubt, some will look at his films as just simple home movies, they are, in fact, something else altogether. Jones’ films are, in effect, similar to the groundbreaking early films of the early 20th century French filmmaking pioneers, the Lumiere brothers and their crew of cameramen, who, with their early movie camera invention, shot endless street scenes, capturing detailed views of life and society at large in France and in other countries.

But there is even deeper dimension to Jones' films, in that they are the most extensive film records we have of Southern and urban black life and culture at the time of rapid social and cultural change for African-Americans during the 1920’s, the very beginning of the Great Migration, which transformed not only black people as a whole, but America itself.

They capture a genuine sense of pride and community, from strong and determined people who faced obstacles they encountered with an absolute assuredness of identity.

And, of course, keep in mind that Jones captured all this during a time of extreme segregation, poverty and racism.

Not only are they endlessly fascinating, but they are incredibly poignant and uplifting, and the most realistic and honest visual entry into a time and place time long ago, that is rapidly fading from memory.

Some years ago, the Jones films, nearly 6 hours worth of footage, were donated to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, but, just recently, they have been posted online for anyone to watch (HERE).

Below are two films from the collection - one of teachers leading their students in exercises and at recess, filmed by Jones in Tennessee; and the other a collection of scenes from trips to Egypt and Switzerland.

Take to time to watch them all. They are a window to a not-so-far away past of ourselves, that is sadly becoming dimmer every single day.

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  • Brittany | July 9, 2014 4:34 PMReply

    The Solomon Sir Jones collection also contains footage of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company and one of Walker's salons.

  • Alias | July 6, 2014 12:40 AMReply

    Thank you for sharing these remarkable archives and this man's life. Very powerful!

  • JMac | July 5, 2014 11:24 AMReply

    These are great. The first film reminds me of visits to rural Alabama when I was younger... except for the old timey cars.

  • CareyCarey | July 6, 2014 12:44 AM

    Thanks JMac. I'm in total agreement with everything you've said.

    But happy 4th, well, I don't know about that? See, you know where I live, right? Okay, I have my grandson with me during the summer, so grandpa was gonna make his day by firing off a few fireworks. Well, apparently this is a state and neighborhood where they don't play that. Consequently, in the middle of our party the police came and busted us. CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT SH*T?! They said they received a "complaint" from an anonymous neighbor. Yeeeah... riiiight. I wonder is Mr. Anon said "is this 911... well, I am not a racist but there's some black folks in our neighborhood having too much fun". "No, no, they're not selling drugs". "No, no, they're not shooting anyone"... "No, they're not playing their music too loud... they're shooting off fire crackers"

    Anyway, being the old fool that I am, I was not going to let the po-po rain on our parade. So, we went straight to Illinois, down in the hood... and continued doing our thang.

    re: The book Passing Strange. It's okay. There's much about the adventures of the fair, blue-eyed son of a wealthy China Trader, Clarence King, who crossed the color line (many questions remain on exactly how he pulled that off). Because in his many photographs NOBODY would ever mistake him for a black man, yet he secretly married Ada Copeland as James Todd, a negro porter. There's no records of Ada's birth, mother or father, nor her years in Georgia, so the book relies on tons of speculation on her days before arriving in New York. I am only half way through the book, so if you do decide to read it, let me know, maybe we can kick it around.

  • JMac | July 5, 2014 11:12 PM

    Welcome Back CC and happy belated Fourth... if you celebrate it. In recent years I prefer to re-read Douglass's essay rather than shoot fireworks. So I guess I was already in a nostalgic frame of mind when I saw this post.

    Haven't read the book you mentioned but after reading some reviews I may put it on my list.

    I have always hoped someone would do a lengthy in-depth documentary on black culture within the Deep South pre and post Civil rights. You very rarely see anything about us except for the 1945-1965 era. Even outside of Civil Rights, docs always focus on issues between the races (government and politics in particular) instead of on daily life among ourselves - as if black existence is meaningless unless it is compared to or in conflict with white culture. Home movies such as Solomon's would provide a good beginning for such a project.

    The section about churches is spot on. Despite the black Southern migration to the North, there was and still is a huge difference between Northern and Southern churches. You haven't been to a real black church service (or a real funeral) until you've gone to one in a small rural black MAG [Mississippi Alabama Georgia] church. It's as if you can feel hundreds or even thousands of years of West African spirituality and community exploding at once.

  • CareyCarey | July 5, 2014 12:58 PM

    Hi JMac, its been a minute. I'm feeling you on the visits to the rural South. For me, the films reminds me of my visits to southern churches back in the day.

    Today I am reading the book Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale Of Love and Deception Across The Color Line by Martha A. Sandweiss. As you may know, it's about a prominent white man ( true story) who passed for black and married a black woman, Ada, in the late 1890's in New York City. There's a passage in the book that relates to our conversation and Solomon's films. I'll share...

    "The church played a critical role in the life of young African American women like Ada, providing not just a place of worship but a social gathering spot where they could relax with others who also felt displaced from the familiar rituals of their southern homes. The African American church provided northern blacks with a kind of family structure. Its family functions are shown by the fact that the church is a centre of social life and intercourse; acts as newspaper and intelligence bureau, is the centre of amusements. "A negro church is for its members much more besides a place of worship. It is a social centre, it is a club, it is an arena for the exercise of one's capabilities and powers, a world in which one may achieve self-realization and preferment", wrote the author James Weldon Johnson. A church might mean something similar to other people, but with the Negro all these attributes are magnified because of the fact that they are so curtailed for him in the world at large."

    JMac, your words, the above passage and Solomon's films brought back fond memories. Thanks

  • Tonny Topaz | July 5, 2014 5:52 AMReply

    good stuff

  • Ol Skool | July 4, 2014 7:08 PMReply

    Thanks Sergio.

    The films are Poignant & Sad.

    While watching our early pioneers, soldiers if you will, all gone now, I couldn't help but think of the song "Where Have all The flowers Gone". The home movies of Solomon Sir Jones took me there. Back to a day when orderly and well dress black men led their families by example - is slowly eroding away. Today we see men dating men and women marrying other women. Today we see less and less black men standing up for one another. Where have all the soldiers gone?

    Today many black women believe yak-hair is the stairway to beauty. Where have all the flowers gone, a long time passing. Sad, I know. Anyway, listen to Earth Wind & Fires you-tube clip while watching Solomon's historical black images. I believe it might take you somewhere. youtube(dot)com/watch?v=z6-URX6jMp4

  • Laura | July 4, 2014 4:58 PMReply

    Glad to know that our history was recorded.

  • Ol Skool | July 6, 2014 2:47 PM

    Oh Really, I believe you're addressing me, not laura, so here we go.

    Now, excuse me Mr Mis-edumacated, I am sorry if you missed the obvious analogy. Listen, and listen good, those brave souls who've gone before us laid the foundations for what we have and who we are today. As Fresrick Douglas said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand". Now.... keep following along. Mr. Douglas didn't expect power to yield on his first attempts, but he kept on keeping on, beating down the doors. So goes the ways of black folks in the past. First, they had to FIGHT to get OUT of bondage. They also had to FIGHT the powers that be for their civil rights and their right to vote -- like all people in this USA. Some even lost their lives in those struggles. Consequently, I can safely assume everyone except YOU can easily see how our people living in the past were soldiers. And, in case your history books missed it, many black pioneers had to fight to assemble in a school house and a church.

    On the issue of gay people, what's your point? Let me repeat myself. I said "Today we see men dating men and women marrying other women". Now please Mr. Really Ignorant, I don't know which state you live in or what country you reside, but in the USA "Gay Marriage" is a new thang. So again, what's your silly point? Oh, I think I know, you're offended by any mention of gays in a negative connotation, huh? If so, get over it and stay in your lane young man.

  • Really? | July 6, 2014 12:44 PM

    I don't know your level of education, but people living in the past were not 'soldiers.' They were people trying to live their lives the best they could with the information they were given or could ascertain during their lifetime. To even think otherwise is selfishly projecting your insecurities and insufficient knowledge of the past on to them.

    And FYI, gay people have always existed. Again, your not knowledgeable enough about history (be it black history or world history) to even understand that. Wow. I hope your not black. You are a representative of why I don't deal with ignorant black people (and I'm black).

    Filled with hate and ignorance. I hope one day you get a proper education.

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