#620) Solomon Sir Jones Films (1924-1928)

#620) Solomon Sir Jones Films (1924-1928)

OR “OK By Me”

Directed by Reverend Solomon Sir Jones

Class of 2016

This post would not have been possible without these films being made available on Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library website. I thank them for their research and cataloging of the Solomon Sir Jones films. 

If you don’t have seven-plus hours to devote to watching these films, this eight minute overview from the Oklahoma Historical Society will do in a pinch.

The Plot: Armed with one of the first commercial Bell & Howell Filmo cameras, Oklahoma minister Solomon Sir Jones spent almost four years documenting anything and everything in such towns as Tulsa, Muskogee, and Bristow. In the process of chronicling major events in these communities (baptisms, funerals, parades, sporting events, etc.), Jones paints a vivid portrait of Black life in the 1920s at the beginning of the Great Migration, as well as in the aftermath of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. In total, the Solomon Sir Jones films are comprised of 29 reels of film, culminating in 7 hours and 15 minutes of footage. And you better believe I watched the whole damn thing.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives some background information on Solomon Sir Jones and his films, and includes a quote from IndieWire about their historical significance as a record of African-American lives in the south during the 1920s.

But Does It Really?: I’ve been watching these films and writing this post on and off for the last 2 1/2 years (!), but thankfully it was always worth it. The Solomon Sir Jones films are the most thorough documentation of this era and community you could hope for. Depictions of African-Americans in the 1920s are typically reduced to their offensive stereotypes in White films of the day. But in a similar vein to what Oscar Micheaux was doing with narrative films at the time, Reverend Jones is showcasing the authentic variety of ways that African-Americans dressed, worked, lived, and interacted with the world. As a whole these films present a complexity of living that is too big to be ignored, and I’m glad the NFR found a place for them as a significant piece of American history.

Everybody Gets One: Shoutout to this article by Martin L. Johnson from the Center for Home Movies website; from which most of my information on Reverend Jones and the films comes from. Born in Tennessee and the son of former slaves, Solomon Sir Jones traveled to the then-Oklahoma Territory at age 20 as a missionary for his Baptist church. Jones lived in Oklahoma the rest of his life, settling down in Muskogee and devoting the next five decades to supporting countless Black institutions and businesses throughout Oklahoma. In 1924, Reverend Jones was one of four religious leaders voted to travel to Europe and the Middle East in a contest run by the Madam C. J. Walker Company. Before departing on the three month trip in early 1925, Jones purchased a 16mm camera, and used the subsequent footage from his trip during his sermons. Jones then proceeded to record as much of his surroundings as possible, spending the next three years filming and sharing his community with his congregations.

Other notes

  • I’m sure the historians who worked on cataloging these films appreciated that Jones had the foresight to label each scene as he went along on a pushpin letter board. That must have saved them hours of time.
  • I’m enjoying the shots of children playing. Typically any documentation of children from this era is them standing sadly amongst their dustbowl era setting, so it’s nice to see that even kids in bleak 1920s farmland were capable of happiness.
  • It’s always awkward when people film funerals. Should I be watching this?
  • Ah, straw boaters. Everyone looks good wearing one; they make you look super fancy and/or like you’re gonna start singing.
  • One of the early highlights is Muskogee’s Turkey Day parade on Thanksgiving 1925. This is followed by a lengthy football game between MTH Muskogee and BWH of Tulsa, complete with leather helmets! Where’s John Facenda?
  • What’s the point of filming a marching band when your film has no sound?
  • Hey, a fashion show! Jones covers Elliott Furnishings’ 1926 Spring Style Show in Muskogee, a rare glimpse at some of Oklahoma’s finest attire. The Beinecke Library mentions that T.J. Elliott was the only place in East Oklahoma to sell Stetson hats, and one of the rare desegregated businesses of the era.
  • There’s a Juneteenth parade from 1925! I feel like Juneteenth is only now getting more national recognition, so it’s comforting to see footage of a celebration from almost 100 years ago.
  • In the midst of all of this, Jones captures a brief moment with one of Muskogee’s Indigenous people. Even in these fleeting moments, this anonymous man subverts a 1920s White audience’s expectations of Native Americans (for starters, he carries a rifle). Side note: Muskogee is named after the Indigenous tribe (spelled “Muscogee”) that was among the “Five Civilized Tribes” victimized by the Indian Removal Act of 1830
  • As these films are not presented in chronological order, Jones’ international trip that inspired this whole endeavor shows up around the halfway point. Among the places Jones visits are a church in Paris, and the holy sites of Israel, Egypt and Galilee. For the latter, Jones himself makes a Hitchcock cameo in a few shots.
  • We get a glimpse at the Madam C. J. Walker Company southwest headquarters in Oklahoma. C. J. Walker was the first American woman (Black or otherwise) to become a self-made millionaire, in this case through her line of cosmetics and hair products for Black women. Walker had passed a few years before this film, but the company continued production until 1981.
  • One of my favorite recurring bits in this movie: People posing for the camera as if it were a photograph. Been there.
  • Thanks to a scene of schoolchildren decorating their Christmas tree, the Solomon Sir Jones films qualify for my Die Hard Not-Christmas list.
  • Here’s a weird one: In Reel #17 there’s an insert of two travelogue shorts from Bell & Howell. I doubt Reverend Jones had anything to do with “Capturing Big Fish in Pacific Waters” and “Whaling in the South Pacific”. Maybe this reel was accidentally mixed in with his films over the years? Regardless, there’s some whale skinning that makes this the kind of animal snuff film I try to avoid on this list.
  • One of the more sobering moments from these films is when Reverend Jones visits Tulsa, Oklahoma a few years after the 1921 race riot that killed anywhere from 30 to 200 Black lives. A photo is shown of Mount Zion Baptist Church immediately after it was totally destroyed in the riot, as well as footage of the rubble that still surrounded the site (the church would not be rebuilt until 1952). As with the earlier Juneteenth parade, these home movies preserve a significant amount of Black history that were all but erased in a White supremacist system.
  • Seeing footage from inside a shoe shop and a bakery reminds me: Now is always the best time to support your local Black businesses!
  • I’m a sucker for ’20s cars. They look so cool! Even in this silent footage you can practically hear the “aaoooga” of the horn.
  • Jones visits a Baptist Church convention that wins for best slogan: “All the Word for All the World”.
  • Near the end, Jones films animals at an unspecified zoo, in which we get actual footage of lions and tigers and bears.
  • Watching all these hours of footage, I got a genuine feeling of community. Not just images of people and places, but a real sense of what life was like in this neighborhood. I look at all these people and I recognize that they are all long gone by now, but I hope that despite what the next century of American history has in store for African-Americans, they all lived long, satisfying lives.

Legacy

  • According to the aforementioned Johnson article, Solomon Sir Jones would play these films “for public exhibition in churches, civic halls, and schools” – though hopefully not all 29 in one sitting. Following Reverend Jones’ death in 1936, the films seemingly disappeared, eventually being rediscovered 70 years later by a local antiques dealer in the walls of one of his properties in Tulsa. Oklahoma historian Currie Ballard recognized the films’ value and purchased them along with Jones’ projector and screen. In 2009, Ballard sold the films to Yale University, which began their preservation and eventual NFR induction.

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