Oscar Micheaux: Homesteader, Bestselling Author, Filmmaker
Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) had no mentors and no background that prepared him for any of the challenges he undertook, but he successfully amassed land in the West
at a time when few African-Americans were homesteading; he published his own novels, one of which went on to be a bestseller; and he became a prolific filmmaker when the industry was in its infancy.
Micheaux was one of eleven children born to former slaves. Oscar’s father could not read or write but was a hardworking farmer who took good care of his family and was a great role model. His mother had received some education and brought her children up reading the Scriptures. She also taught them about the wisdom of Booker T. Washington.
When Oscar was born, the family lived near Metropolis, Illinois, but they soon moved to Great Bend, Kansas where Oscar grew up. Oscar did well in school, but this set him apart from the other schoolchildren who saw no reason to work so hard. His dislike of farming coupled with is outsider-status at school led Oscar to drop out of high school to get a job.
His first job was at a car plant company followed by a job in the mines, but he only stayed long enough to earn money for a train ticket to get to Chicago where his brother was working as a waiter.
Chicago was everything he dreamed. Like so many others, he accepted the first opportunity offered, which was at the stockyards. The work was highly unpleasant, so those who could took other work as quickly as possible. Oscar worked at a steel mill for a time but soon found he could save more money by shining shoes at a barber shop in Wheaton, Illinois where he also received tips. In the mornings, he had a part-time job pitching hay, and he began putting money in a bank account.
Pullman Jobs Highly Coveted
It was sometimes said, “Lincoln freed the slaves but Pullman hired them,” and these jobs were life-changing for African-American men. Pullman porters were not particularly well-paid but tips were possible, and the men had the opportunity to travel and be exposed to many places and people. Their mobility opened the world to other black people because the porters returned with new music they had heard, tidbits of news they had picked up, and stories of the places they had visited.
Micheaux was assigned to a train run that went from Colorado to Wyoming and Idaho and then on to Oregon. He fell in love with the wide open spaces after the congestion of Chicago. As he traveled, he also heard that the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota was going to be opened to homesteaders. Micheaux had saved his money and wanted to investigate.
Micheaux visited South Dakota, and with some difficulty found a man with a wagon who was willing to drive a black man around to see the available land. In October
1904 when Micheaux was not quite 21, he committed to taking a property. That winter he continued his work as a porter to stockpile more money.
In the spring of 1905 he returned to his land and began planting. He struggled with the farm, but soon learned to make it profitable. His effort paid off. He increased the value of his land and began to amass more property.
He found the white homesteaders friendly, but Micheaux wanted a wife so he returned to Chicago to find someone who would come to South Dakota with him. His first choices turned him down, but his marriage proposal to Orlean McCracken, a schoolteacher and daughter of a reverend, was accepted.
Married life in South Dakota did not go well. Orlean felt abandoned when Oscar traveled, and she miscarried during one of Oscar’s trips. This raised the ire of her family who came to retrieve her.
Drought had set in, and the farm was doing badly but Oscar followed Orlean to Chicago. He was unsuccessful at persuading her to return, and by the time he came back to South Dakota, the drought had made useless the 640 acres he had acquired. In addition, his father-in-law had stepped in and sold the only section of land that might have still had value.
Reading and Writing
With the loss of his land, Micheaux was very depressed and could not afford much so he spent his time reading. He was particularly taken by the memoirs he read, including one by Jack London. He had had some luck with publication in 1910 when he had published an article in The Chicago Defender about the importance of blacks creating lives independent of whites.
He began to have confidence that he could write a memoir. As his story took shape, he hired an editor and he began sending it out to publishers only to be met with rejection. Micheaux realize that if he wanted his book published he was going to have to do it himself.
He had maintained friendships with other homesteaders so he went to his neighbors and offered them excerpts of the novel if they would pay him in advance for the complete novel. He soon had the $250 needed to publish the book. Calling it The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer, he published it in 1913.
As Micheux wrote: “I want to see the Negro pictured in books and movies like he lives, so I formed my own book publishing firm and write my own books.”
Business in Chicago
When the book was finished, he intended to go to Chicago to promote it, but he also had some other unfinished business. He planned to sue his father-in-law, Reverend McCracken, for selling his homestead out from under him. The stories that were written about the lawsuit helped publicize Micheaux’s name. As a result, the ads he took for his book were easier to convert to sales. His book was soon selling very well.
Approached by Film Company
As his book became better known, he was approached for film rights by an African-American film company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.
Micheaux thought that they had a point about storytelling via film so he converted his company to be the Micheaux Film and Book Company. He raised money by selling stock in the company and soon began filming. When the silent film, The Homesteader starring Evelyn Preer, was completed, it ran for eight reels; it was the first full-length film made by an African-American. The Homesteader was released in 1919 in Chicago and was well-received.
Next Micheaux began filming The Exile, his first film to use sound. Here, too, the plot was autobiographical with the central character leaving Chicago to operate a ranch in South Dakota. His 1924 film, Body and Soul, introduced actor Paul Robeson.
Micheaux’s films led the way for other “race films” that told a more realistic story of black people and their lives. Micheaux’s films often dealt with controversial issues, and the characters were serious about life and understood the importance of getting an education.
Micheaux died in 1951 while on a business trip. He is buried in Great Bend, Kansas near the rest of his family.
Oscar Micheaux’s grave stone reads “A Man Ahead of his Time,” and this was certainly true. Over the course of his career, Micheaux wrote, produced, and directed 44
feature films and wrote seven novels, the first of which was a national bestseller.
During his own era, Oscar Micheaux received few awards but he has been honored by a number of groups, including the Directors Guild and the Producers Guild, posthumously. In 1987 Oscar Micheaux was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 2010 a commemorative stamp was released in his honor.
Documentary in the Works
To make Oscar Micheaux’s life better known, Bayer L. Mack has been working on a documentary on Micheaux’s life. To read about Bayer Mack’s effort click here.
Segments of the documentary can be viewed online at http://www.webserieschannel.
The official website is www.theczarofblackhollywood.com
The full documentary will officially premiere on September 28 at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) 99th Annual Convention in Memphis, TN and will be available for streaming; as well as on DVD.