African American history, life and
culture can be seen through the all embracing and compassing eyes of Solomon Sir Jones (1869-1936), a Baptist minister, who established, or was the pastor of some 15 churches in his lifetime,
a businessman and an avid home movie filmmaker. The son of ex-slaves, he was born
in Tennessee and grew up in the South, before moving to Oklahoma, where he lived
for most of his life. And yet, Jones was quite remarkable for any person, black
or white, in this country, during this period of the early 20th
century – an extraordinary well traveled man.
Not only did he travel throughout the South, but also the
Midwest, the East Coast, Colorado and even overseas, to France, England,
Palestine, Switzerland, Italy, Northern Africa, and Germany. And wherever he went,
during the years 1924-28, he took his
trusty home movie camera.
And at a time when making home movies was a rare and
unaffordable pastime for the overwhelming majority of Americans, the fact that
a black person was traveling around the U.S., shooting films that captured black life and
society, as well as life and culture in other countries, made the pastor
from Oklahoma a true pioneer, not only as a filmmaker, but also as a sociologist and an
Though, no doubt, some will look at his films as just simple
home movies, they are, in fact, something else altogether. Jones’ films are, in
effect, similar to the groundbreaking early films of the early 20th
century French filmmaking pioneers, the Lumiere brothers and their crew of
cameramen, who, with their early movie camera invention, shot endless street
scenes, capturing detailed views of life and society at large in France and in other countries.
But there is an even deeper dimension to Jones’ films, in
that they are the most extensive film records we have of Southern and urban
black life and culture at a period of rapid
social and cultural change for African-Americans during the 1920’s, the very beginning
of the Great Migration, which transformed not only black people as a whole, but America
The films capture a genuine sense of pride and community from strong and determined people who faced obstacles they encountered with an absolute assuredness
And, of course, keep in mind that Jones filmed all
this during a time of extreme segregation, poverty and racism.
Not only is the footage endlessly fascinating, but it’s all incredibly
poignant and uplifting, and the most realistic and honest visual entry into a time and place time long ago, that is rapidly fading from memory.
Some years ago, Jones films, nearly 6 hours worth of
footage, were donated to the Beinecke Rare
Book and Manuscript Library at Yale
University, and the library has posted them online for anyone to watch (here).
Below are two films from the collection – one of teachers leading their students in exercises and at recess, filmed by
Jones in Tennessee; and the other a collection of scenes from trips to Egypt and
Take the time to watch
them all. They are a window into a not-so-far away past of ourselves, that is sadly becoming
dimmer every single day.