African American history, life and culture can be seen through the all embracing and compassing eyes of Solomon Sir Jones (1869-1936), 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 an 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 a period 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.
The films 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 filmed all this during a time of extreme segregation, poverty and racism.
Not only is the footage endlessly fascinating, but it's all 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, Jones films, nearly 6 hours worth of footage, were donated to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and the library has posted them 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 the time to watch them all. They are a window into a not-so-far away past of ourselves, that is sadly becoming dimmer every single day.