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Jim McKee: Nebraska author never lived here

November 17, 2018

Oscar Micheaux, though often noted as a Nebraska author, may have owned land in Nebraska and definitely had books printed in Nebraska but never actually lived in Nebraska.

His professional career, which covered just over three decades, included the writing of seven novels with production and direction of 44 motion pictures, culminating in a Hollywood Boulevard star and a U.S. postage stamp bearing his likeness.

Oscar Devereaux Michaux was born in 1884 to former slaves on a farm near Metropolis, Illinois. Very little is known of his early childhood, and varying accounts show him the fifth of 11, 12 or 13 siblings. At an early age, his family moved to Kansas and at some point, he added and “e” to his name, changing the spelling to Micheaux.

At the age of 16 Micheaux moved to Chicago where he lived with his brother, working in a number of jobs beginning with shining shoes and pitching hay, then to becoming a railroad porter. As a porter he saw the Midwest, plains and West Coast and learned about the vast possibilities surrounding homesteading. In 1904 Micheaux obtained about 500 acres of “relinquished” land on the southern edge of South Dakota near the Rosebud Reservation and slowly acquired more land, possibly reaching a total of 640 acres. One unconfirmed report shows a small portion of this land may have been in Nebraska.

Although he was then married, as an African-American, he was often taken advantage of by merchants and neighbors who sold him second rate machinery, livestock and land, though at first he seemed successful. A decade later a drought settled in the area, his first child died shortly after birth, somehow his father-in-law was able to sell off the most productive part of his farm and his wife deserted him to live with her parents.

Having lost the farm, Micheaux moved to Sioux City and began writing an autobiographical novel, “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer,” naming the central character Oscar Devereaux. This self-published book was produced by the Woodruff Printing and Bank Note Co. at 1000 Q St. in Lincoln, for which Micheaux paid $500. He then set out to sell the book door to door with moderate success.

In 1915 the book came to the attention of George P. Johnson, an Omaha mailman, who, with his brother Noble, had established the Lincoln Motion Picture Co., the “first all-black movie production company” in the U.S. with offices in Omaha and a production facility in California. The Johnsons were eager to make a film of “The Conquest,” but when Micheaux insisted on directing it, the proposition failed. The Johnsons went on to produce five films which were primarily shown in black-only theaters, churches, etc., but folded in 1921.

Micheaux then moved to Chicago where he finished his second novel, “The Homesteader,” also printed in Lincoln by Woodruff. In Illinois he also sold stock in his own Micheaux Film and Book Co., which completed the original film of “The Conquest” and grossed a presentable $5,000. At about the same time he also established the Western Book Supply Co., which sold books door to door. “The Homesteader” was then made into a film in a rented Chicago studio in 1919, followed by “Within Our Gates,” in response to the pro-Ku Klux Klan “Birth of a Nation.” “The Homesteader,” as an eight-reel film, was termed the “first feature-length film made by an African-American.”

In 1924 Micheaux produced “Body and Soul,” which featured Paul Robeson in his first role. This movie, the story of a corrupt minister, may have been loosely based on his father-in-law. Micheaux married his second wife, Alice Russell, and established the Micheaux Film Corp. in 1929, which produced “The Exile,” the first black sound movie two years later. The firm’s last motion picture was the three-hour-long “Betrayal,” which was released in 1948.

Micheaux died in 1951 while on a promotional tour and was buried in Kansas. Although most of his film production was in the silent era, 15 were talking pictures. In 1987 he was given a Hollywood Boulevard “star,” in 2010 a 44-cent U.S. postage stamp was issued in his honor, and in 2017 a biopic based on his life was announced in “Variety.”

Micheaux was lauded as “the most successful African-American filmmaker” of all time. Oscar would probably be amazed that a couple of his films are still available on DVD and astounded to learn that a signed copy of his first book in good condition might bring $500, the total cost of its first printing.

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