Rare 1920s Footage: All-Black Towns Living the American Dream

Part three of a four-part series from the film archive of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Sept. 16, 2016 - By the 1920s, Oklahoma was home to some 50 African-American towns, in addition to a large and prosperous black community living in the city of Tulsa. These towns and their self-reliant middle class and affluent residents are documented by the home movies of Reverend S. S. Jones, an itinerant minister and businessman. Known and respected by the citizens of the towns whose lives he captured on film, Rev. Jones’s work offers revealing glimpses of these communities as a haven for African Americans who very often faced discrimination elsewhere in America. The subjects are everyday life: a family on the front porch of their bungalow, shop workers at a storefront, farmers plowing their fields, children playing on seesaws in a schoolyard. Much of the material documents the economic life of the towns, from business districts filled with prosperous merchants to the homes of successful professionals, with an abundant countryside beyond. As Rhea Combs, curator of film and photography for the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, points out in her commentary, here we even find a married couple who were oil barons, proof of the extraordinary progress made in the relatively short time since the end of slavery. The fashions and hairstyles, automobiles and horses, and even such details as a man manually pumping gasoline at a filling station make the films a fascinating record of the lives of Americans, and African Americans in particular, in the early 20th century.

Rev. S. S. Jones Home Movie Collection
2011.79.1-9
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Gift of Naomi Long Madgett

Interview with Rhea Combs
Curator of Film and Photography
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture