Oscar Micheaux: Homesteader, Bestselling Author, Filmmaker
Oscar Micheaux 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 (1884-1951) was one of eleven children born to former slaves. Oscar’s father did not read or write but was a hardworking farmer who took good care of his family and was a great role model. His mother 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. Micheaux 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. He accepted a better job working in a mine, 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 offered the opportunities of which Micheaux dreamed. He knew he needed work, so he accepted a job in the stockyards. The work was highly unpleasant, so he moved elsewhere as quickly as possible. His next opportunity was working at a steel mill, but he soon found he could save more money by shining shoes at a barber shop. He pocketed the tips, and worked another job in the morning—pitching hay, This provided him with enough to start a bank account.
Pullman Jobs Highly Coveted
A popular saying of the time was, “Lincoln freed the slaves but Pullman hired them. ” These jobs were life-changing for African American men.
Pullman porters were not particularly well-paid, but tips were possible, and the job opened the world to men who had not had an opportunity to travel. Their mobility also expanded their cultural reach. Porters traveled with black newspapers and spread music from community to community. They also conveyed tidbits of news they had picked up, and stories of the places they had visited.
Micheaux was delighted when he 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 stopped off in South Dakota, but the community did not offer any sign of welcome. With some difficulty, Micheaux 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 save 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. 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. When Micheaux traveled for work, Orlean felt abandoned, During one of these trips, Orlean miscarried. Her family did not like having her on the homestead alone. They traveled to South Dakota and took her back to Chicago with them.
When Micheaux returned home, he was heartbroken. He followed Orlean to Chicago but was unsuccessful at persuading her to return. By the time he returned to South Dakota, his land was totally useless because of the drought. There was one parcel of land that seemed workable for the future, but his father-in-law stepped in and sold it when he was in the state to bring his daughter home.
Micheaux’s dream of being a successful homesteader was over.
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 tried doing some writing, and he had some luck with publication in 1910. The Chicago Defender published one of his articles 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 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 first, he wanted to settle the score with his father-in-law, the Reverand McCracken, for selling the homestead out from under him. Micheaux launched his lawsuit, and a good deal of publicity resulted.
Ironically, this publicity increased the effectiveness of the advertising he purchased to sell the book. He began to see steady sales figures.
Micheaux Learns Film
As his book became better known, Oscar Micheaux was approached for film rights by an African American film company, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company.
Storytelling through film appealed to Micheaux, so he converted his company to 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 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 more realistic stories 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 lifetime, Oscar Micheaux received few awards, but since that time, he has received many. He has been honored posthumously by a number of groups, including the Directors Guild and the Producers Guild. 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.
Czar of Black Hollywood Tells Story
To make Oscar Micheaux’s life better known, Bayer L. Mack filmed a documentary on Micheaux’s life called The Czar of Black Hollywood.
To view the documentary in its entirety, readers can find it here. But to learn a little more about Micheaux and his work, here’s a clip by Bayer Mack from YouTube:
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