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Tombstone in Great Bend, Star on Hollywood Boulevard

By Marty Keenan
Profile | February 25, 2010

GREAT BEND, Kan. - Black History Month seems to be losing some steam, and in a way, that's a good sign. Because taking an entire people group and saying: "You get one month, and it is the shortest month of the year," is a little confining. African-Americans have made contributions every month and every day and every hour of every year. Without them, what would America be like? Or would it even exist?

I had an exhilarating moment in December, when I learned that Oscar Micheaux, who is buried in the Great Bend Municipal cemetery, was going to be named as the USPS "Black Heritage" stamp honoree for 2010. Micheaux is the 33rd annual "Black Heritage Stamp" honoree. The series began in 1978.

About 100 U.S. Postage stamps honor African-Americans or African-American milestones, with 33 being part of the "Black Heritage Series."

I found out before others through a postal worker who happens to be a cousin of Micheaux. And I quietly told Kevin Willmott and the Kansas Humanities Council people about the stamp, hoping it was really true.

Well, it is true. Andrea Burrows of the Brooklyn, NY post office contacted me recently, and asked me whom she should invite to the stamp's unveiling in June, and I suggested Spike Lee, Paul Robeson, Jr. and Pearl Bowser. (Robeson's father, Paul Robeson's first film was Micheaux's silent film "Body and Soul" (1925), and Pearl Bowser is the one scholar who has worked the longest and hardest to promote Micheaux.) There will be stamp unveilings in other cities as well.

Lots of us have worked hard to bring recognition to an obscure man who was buried here in 1951 without even a tombstone until 1988. That's when Karen Neuforth, her mother Juanita, Harley Robinson, Jr. and many others raised money to dedicate a tombstone to America's first black filmmaker.

Incredibly, Micheaux received a Star on Hollywood Boulevard in 1987, before he even had a tombstone placed at his grave in Great Bend. On the fiftieth anniversary of Micheaux's death -- March 25, 2001, I helped put together the "Oscar Micheaux Golden Anniversary Memorial Celebration" in Great Bend, and with the help of the Kansas Humanities Council, we had over a thousand people attend one or more event. People from 16 states traveled to Great Bend to pay their belated respects to the man.

Micheaux getting his face on a U.S. postage stamp this year has the feel of another big milestone. Very few Americans have been honored with both a Hollywood Star and a postage stamp.

It feels like vindication. The same way I felt when Hollywood writer Patrick McGilligen
dedicated his book, "Oscar Micheaux: The Great and Only" to me. I was one of many who worked to rescue Micheaux from obscurity. And I couldn't be any prouder of what all of us have accomplished.

When movies were invented, everybody wanted to see themselves on screen, or at least people who looked like them. The idea of moving pictures was so radical, that when movies were first introduced, audiences would flinch, say, when a giant wave of water was shown hitting the screen. Seeing is believing.

But for years blacks paid to see silent movies, and were humiliated by filmmakers like D.W. Griffith ("Birth of a Nation" 1915) who portrayed blacks as shiftless creatures unworthy of any consideration. "Birth of a Nation" portrayed blacks as criminals, rapists, thiefs and dullards.

And a young man, having failed in farming, decided to do something about it. An African American as a movie director? Why, in 1919 you might as well be talking about an African American walking on the moon. It was crazy. But Oscar Micheaux bought a camera, wrote a script, and made silent films by, for and about African-Americans. His low budget retort to D.W. Griffith's Birth of Nation - "Symbol of the Unconquered" - (1920) showed a black farmer humiliating the KKK. Say what?

People made fun of Oscar Micheaux. They censored his pictures. Even blacks complained that he was "stirring up trouble." But today, people look back at his 43 films -- few of which still exist -- and are amazed.

And I couldn't let "Black History Month" pass without tipping my hat to the bravest movie director in the history of the world, Oscar Micheaux. And knowing what I know about Micheaux, he might well say: "Why did it take so long for me to get on a stamp?"

Getting your face on a stamp. It sounds simple, but it's difficult. But not as difficult as becoming America's first black filmmaker.


4 Comments

Do you mean that the postal service has been issuing one stamp each Feb. for the last 90 years or that there have only been 90 African Americans on all postal stamps combined?


James, great question. The Black Heritage Series started in 1978. However, prior to that, African-Americans were on postage stamps: Booker T. Washington was the first in 1940. Apparently, over 100 U.S. stamps honor African-Americans or milestones relating to African-Americana. Not all are part of the "Black Heritage Series" that started in 1978.


Here's the deal. The "Black Heritage Series" started in 1978, and Micheaux is the 33rd annual "one stamp per year" recipient.
I think the total number of African-Americans on U.S. Stamps is around 90. For instance, in February 09 they released "Civil Rights Pioneers" with 6 individuals. This issue was not part of the "Black Heritage Series."


James, thanks. I edited the article to clarify, and learned a lot from your question.


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