Today’s blog was written by Donald Roe, Associate Professor of History, Howard University, and former Archivist and Subject Area Expert in the Motion Picture Sound and Video Branch at NARA
The film collection housed at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), consisting of both edited and unedited film footage, is among the largest in the world. Included are films that document the history and culture of African Africans. Over the years, historians, social scientists, other scholars, students, news media, and documentary and feature filmmakers have researched and used NARA’s film archive for motion picture projects relating to African Americans. For example, film footage relating to the service of the African American in the United States Military has been used in a number of documentary films to show the significance of the military in desegregating American society.
African Americans have served in all of this Nation’s wars from the American Revolution to the present. Although they served in a segregated military until the late 1940s, by the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), many African Americans had come to believe, with some justification, that there was more equality in the military than there was in civilian life. Years before the birth of the modern civil rights movement, the United States Military had made significant progress in the African American’s march toward equality in the military. Over the years a number of documentary filmmakers have used motion picture footage housed at NARA to document this progress.
Although the U. S. Military was segregated during World War I, it made a very important film, The Training of Colored Troops (111 H 1211), that foreshadowed the growing significance of the African American soldier. After all, African Americans had served with distinction in the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and on the Western Frontier. In fact, elements of the all black 9th and 10th Cavalries (Buffalo Soldiers) were instrumental in bringing range wars in Wyoming and New Mexico to a conclusion and, thereby, helped to ensure peaceful settlement in the Western Territories. Also, the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the all black 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments provided support for Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” during the Spanish American War.
During World War II, the Office of War Information (OWI), recognizing the significance of the African American soldier, authorized the making of a documentary film about African Americans in the military. Under the guidance of Frank Capra, the noted Hollywood film director, who OWI had selected to oversee its production of military films, OWI authorized the making of a documentary film on the African American soldier. Capra chose Carlton Moss, a noted Black filmmaker, to make the film The Negro Soldier (111 OF 51) which would document the service of the African American soldier to his country. However, Moss agreed to make the film only if OWI allowed him to make a second film that would specifically document the virtues of an integrated military. OWI, which had a number of social scientists in its employ who saw the benefit of an integrated military, agreed and allowed Moss to make Teamwork (111 OF 14), a film that advocated an integrated military. Other important films on the African American soldier made during World War II include The Negro Sailor (80 MN 4360) and Wings for This Man (342 SFP 141), a film, that a young and liberal Ronald Reagan narrates, documenting the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen.
I met Carlton Moss more than thirty-years after he made The Negro Soldier and Teamwork. At the time, I was a Motion Picture Archivist and Subject Area Expert in the Motion Picture Branch at NARA and he was working on a film project relating to the Harmon Foundation Film Collection, which is housed at NARA. We had several interesting conversations about The Negro Soldier and Teamwork. Moss seemed certain that copies of these films had been sent to President Truman for screening and that they were, at least, partially, responsible for his signing of an Executive Order in 1948 outlawing discrimination in the United States Military. In any event, Truman’s Executive Order outlawed discrimination in the military six years before the Supreme Court declared in Brown v. Board of Education and Bolling v. Sharpe that segregated education violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth and Five Amendments and, therefore, was unconstitutional.
Shortly after meeting Moss, I had the pleasure of assisting William Miles, another noted African American Documentary Filmmaker, who was familiar with the films that Moss had made. At the time, Miles was interested in researching NARA’s Motion Picture Holdings for appropriate military-related footage for documentary films that he was making on the African American soldier. Miles’ research, ultimately, led to the production of three more classic films documenting the history of the African American Soldier, Men of Bronze, A Different Drummer, and Liberators: Fighting a War on Two Fronts. The motion picture footage from NARA’s motion picture holdings which was used in these classic documentary films on the African American soldier is an example of the rich treasure chest of archival film footage housed among the motion picture holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration relating to the history and culture of African Americans.