Friday, July 27, 2012

John O'Neal Papers Open for Research

“Art and politics are complementary, not opposing terms.”

These are the words and philosophy of playwright and social activist, John M. O’Neal, Jr., one of the leading figures of Black theater in the South and co-founder of the Free Southern Theater (FST). The Amistad Research Center is proud to announce the opening of the John O’Neal papers and the inclusion of the collection finding aid in the Center’s online database.

SNCC flyer likely produced
in support of the Freedom
Summer project of 1964.
From the papers of John
Born in Mound City, Illinois, John M. O’Neal Jr. earned a BA degree in English and Philosophy from Southern Illinois University in 1962, where he also studied playwriting. With deep sentiment and strong convictions about the nonviolent civil rights movements in the South, O'Neal moved to Jackson, Mississippi, shortly after graduation and became a Field Secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Georgia and Mississippi. O’Neal also served as the Committee Chairman and Coordinator for the Freedom School Program of the Council of Federated Organizations’ Freedom Summer in Mississippi project in 1964. After extensive contributions to SNCC, the Council of Racial Equality (CORE), and other civil rights organizations, and as a result of his work as a socially active student at Southern Illinois University, O’Neal helped established the Free Southern Theater (FST) in 1963.

FST began as the Tougaloo Drama Workshop, co-founded by O’Neal, Doris Derby, and Gilbert Moses at Tougaloo College in Mississippi in October of 1963. For a number of practical reasons, the theater relocated from Mississippi and established its headquarters in New Orleans in 1965. FST played a pivotal role for African Americans and oppressed people in the South by using theater as a tool of social justice. The touring repertory company inspired its cast members to become activists, as well as artists. FST eventually produced its last play in 1980. That same year marked the creation of FST's successor, Junebug Productions, which was led by O'Neal for many years.

John O'Neal as Junebug
Jabbo Jones, 1985.
The John O’Neal papers comprise 25.94 linear feet of an array of correspondence, brochures, flyers, newsletters, news clippings, press releases, position papers, pamphlets, field reports, committee meeting minutes, notebooks, writings, and collected publications. The bulk of the theater files highlight Black arts theater groups in the South, as well as other ethnic theater groups O'Neal contributed to as a playwright, director, and performer. In addition, the writings series is comprised of drafts of his plays, including "Don't Start Me To Talking Or I'll Tell Everything I Know: Sayings From the Life and Writings of Junebug Jabbo Jones" and "Hurricane Season."

O’Neal’s papers provide insight into the personal and professional life of John M. O’Neal, Jr. and document O'Neal's artistic style and vision as an African American actor, director, playwright, and community and civil rights activist. The papers are of interest for studying the southern Black Arts Movement and more specifically the Black Theater Movement; the Free Southern Theater; the Civil Rights Movement, particularly in the southern states and New Orleans; voter rights registration; race relations; literature; and community organizing.

For a new archivist, it is a wonderful feeling to complete the processing of the John O’Neal papers and to provide access to the many historical treasures found within his papers, both through the online finding aid and the sampling of digitized materials that are currently being added to Amistad's online database.
Posted by Felicia Render

(Images from the John O'Neal Papers. Not to be used without permission.)

The Olympics at Amistad: Part I, Audrey "Mickey" Patterson Tyler

Today marks the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.  But did you know that the last time the Olympics were held in London, in 1948, New Orleans’ own Audrey “Mickey” Patterson became the first African American woman to medal at the Olympics?  Audrey Patterson, later Audrey Patterson Tyler, won bronze in the 200m sprint at the 1948 Summer Olympics, barely edging out by British sprinter Audrey Williamson in a photo finish to determine the second through fourth finishers.

Raised in the Gert Town neighborhood of New Orleans, Patterson attended Gilbert Academy’s St. Charles Avenue campus and later attended Wiley College and Tennessee State University.  It was at Gilbert Academy where a visiting Jesse Owens told her class, “There is a boy or a girl in this audience who will go to the Olympics.”  Young Patterson worked hard to make sure this person would be her.  As a college student/athlete, Patterson won the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes at the 1947 Tuskegee Relays, and she ultimately set an American record in the latter event in 1948.  Patterson again won the 200m sprint at the US Olympic Trials and she also qualified for the 100m event at the Olympics.

Audry Patterson Tyler and Coach Eddie Robinson, depicted as new
inductees in the 1978 class of the Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Hall of Fame.
Sadly, though she was honored with a block party in Gert Town, her acclaim went somewhat unnoticed elsewhere in New Orleans. The Times-Picayune failed to identify Patterson as a New Orleanian and Mayor deLesseps Morrison did not attend a ceremony in her honor at the Booker T. Washington High School Auditorium.  Nor did the city of New Orleans facilitate her efforts to continue as an elite track star.  In 1950, she was refused use of the municipal track at City Park due to the strident racial segregation of the time.

Audrey Patterson Tyler went on to work as an educator in Louisiana and California.  She founded one of California’s most competitive track and field clubs, Mickey’s Missiles.  Incidentally, out of this group emerged part of the newer generation of track athletes, Dennis Mitchell and Jackie Thompson.

Patterson Tyler was inducted into the Sugar Bowl Greater New Orleans Hall of Fame in 1978 and posthumously in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame in 2000.  Audrey “Mickey” Patterson Tyler died in 1996 in National City, California.

Patterson’s Olympic saga is detailed in a greater extent in The Times-Picayune and the current issue of The Louisiana Weekly.

Posted by Andrew Salinas

(Image from the Louisiana Weekly Photograph Collection.  May not be reproduced without permission.)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Working with the Ed Pincus Film Collection

For the past few months, I have had the pleasure of inventorying the Ed Pincus Film Collection.  Mr. Pincus is a documentary filmmaker who worked in the 1960s to document the Civil Rights Movement in Natchez, Mississippi.  Our collection contains two complete documentaries produced during this time period (Black Natchez and Panola), and many hours of footage that never made it into a completed film.

A view of footage shot by Ed Pincus.
While examining the films, I have had the opportunity to watch much of this unused footage.  Some of the material I have spent the most time with has been the reels he shot for an intended sequel to his feature Black Natchez.  It has been an eye-opening look into life in Natchez in 1967.  The film was shot the week following the murder of Wharlest Jackson, the treasurer of the Natchez branch of the NAACP.  Jackson had been working in the Armstrong Tire and Rubber Plant, and had recently been promoted to a position that had been previously held by white workers.  On the evening of February 27, a bomb detonated in Jackson’s pickup truck and killed him.  He had received threats at the plant, and the incident highlighted the continued presence of the Ku Klux Klan in Natchez.  In the week that followed, the African American community, along with local and national civil rights activists, gathered to address the problem.

What Pincus captured were the protest marches, community meetings, and general public sentiment following Jackson’s death.  The rolls of film he shot are genuine, often candid, portrayals of a city at a time of turmoil.  At times, Pincus and his partner, David Neuman, turn the camera on an individual and interview him.  Everyone from a prominent civil rights leader like Charles Evers to the average man in the street is asked to express his thoughts and feelings about the racial tensions and violence in the city.  Some of the most engaging rolls to watch, however, are shot in a more “fly on the wall” style.  My favorite scenes are the ones shot in a local barbershop, where the camera simply looks on and listens in while members of the community discuss the murder and the state of the city while having their hair cut and socializing.  They talk about leaving the city, and consider if it is worth staying for jobs or not.  They discuss law enforcement and the judicial system.  They debate the effectiveness of the tactics of marching and protest being used by the civil rights community.  The conversation is casual, often cracking jokes and dissolving into laughter in the midst of serious conversation.  The NAACP and Deacons for Defense and Justice meetings are fascinating, but it is these conversational scenes that bring the civil rights struggle home to me in a very real way.

It is easy to have respect for the tremendous work done by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, but a historical respect and personal empathy are very different things.  With the perspective of history, it is easy to forget that these men and women didn’t know what was going to happen next.  They didn’t know if they were safe, or who among them would be the next target of violence.  But they still marched publicly, made speeches, and worked to foster communication with the white community, despite the jeopardy it put their lives in, because they knew that it needed to be done.  It is the way these films bring such an important historical era to life that will make them invaluable to researchers.  I feel inspired by the individuals portrayed in them, and it makes me feel that my own work is that much more important.  Amistad continues working to make these films accessible, and to share these very personal stories with future generations. Look for more updates on our efforts to preserve the Ed Pincus Film Collection in future blog posts.

Posted by Brenda Flora.

(Image may not be reproduced without permission.)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

From the Stacks: A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin

Title page for the 1853
edition of A Key to Uncle
Tom's Cabin

Recently, staff of the Amistad Research Center undertook a major cleaning and shifting of the Center’s library collection. Numbering over 25,000 volumes and containing not only rare and early editions, but a wide spectrum of works covering all aspects of Amistad’s collecting focus, the library collection is an excellent resource for researchers of all ages and interests. The recent work of cleaning and shifting required that staff handle every single volume and has led to some recent “re-discoveries” of interesting and important texts.

To highlight some of these, staff are beginning a “From the Stacks” series on Amistad’s blog, which will occasionally feature one work and discuss not only the publication history of each title, but its significance to the cultural and historical fabric of its era. The focus of our first installment is an important, but often eclipsed work: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or, Life among the Lowly is one of the most well-known anti-slavery works by an American author. First serialized in weekly installments published in the National Era, a Washington, D.C. abolitionist newspaper, between June 5, 1851, and April 1, 1852, the story reached over 50,000 readers prior to its first appearance in book form, when it was published by John P. Jewett & Company of Boston in 1852.

The opening text of Stowe's Key.
The success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was seen not only in the number of copies sold (300,000 in the first year), but in the response from critics on both sides of the slavery question. While the novel was immediately regarded as an important abolitionist work that exposed the horrors of slavery, Stowe's writing in many ways provided sympathetic views of both white Southerners and black slaves. (This would later become a focus of much later critical appraisal of the book by literary scholars and historians). However, although Stowe planned to start a novel about life in Maine following the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, attacks by pro-slavery critics led her begin efforts to answer those attacks, which claimed that Stowe had exaggerated and falsified her descriptions of life in the South.

Originally intending to write a short document to be added to the next edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe's research consumed her. A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin: Presenting the Original Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded provided examples of real life equivalents to the major characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin and gathered sources Stowe used in writing her novel, although some of the sources cited in the Key where read by the author after the publication of her previous book. When completed, her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin totaled over 500 pages of evidence. In a January 6, 1853, letter to the Earl of Shaftsbury, Stowe reported:

"I am now writing a work to be called "Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin." It contains, in an undeniable form, the facts which corroborate all that I have said. One third of it is taken up with judicial records of trials and decisions, and with statute law. It is a a most fearful story, my lord, -- I can truly say that I write with life-blood, but as called of God...If they call the fiction dreadful, what will they say of the fact, where I cannot deny, suppress, or color? But it is God's will that must be told, and I am the unwilling agent."

A newspaper advertisement from
Alabama cited in Stowe's Key as
evidence of slave hunting.

A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in 1853 by Jewett. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, the reading public preferred fiction to fact, and sales of the Key where only a fraction of those of Stowe's novel. However, although it is often overshadowed by its precursor, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin gathers not only documentary evidence of life under slavery, but provides an interesting look into the politics of public opinion and its intersection with pro- and anti-slavery sentiments.

An excellent online resource for Uncle Tom's Cabin is Stephen Railton's website, "Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture," hosted by the University of Virginia. It provides not only text of Stowe's works, but contemporary responses and information on adaptations of the novel.

Posted by Christopher Harter

(Images from the 1853 edition of A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Images may not be reproduced without permission.)