Oscar Micheaux was born in Illinois, the fifth of 13 children. Many of his family members, including his parents, became early settlers in the area of Great Bend. He left his family’s farm at age 17 and worked as a Pullman porter in Chicago. From there he moved to South Dakota and became a farmer and entrepreneur. It was in South Dakota that Micheaux began his career as a novelist.
In 1913 Micheaux published and marketed his first book, The Conquest. At first Micheaux traveled door to door to sell his books to South Dakota farmers and businessmen. He overcame prejudicial attitudes and the restrictions on African Americans at the time and founded his company, Western Book Supply. Micheaux wrote The Case of Mrs. Wingate, the first best-selling novel written by an African American. In 1951 he told the New York Amsterdam News why he wrote and published his own books.
I want to see the Negro pictured in books just like he lives ? But, if you write that way, the white book publishers won?t publish your scripts? so I formed my own book publishing firm and write my own books, and Negroes like them, too, because three of them are best sellers.
Micheaux didn't stop at writing books. He went on to create Micheaux Film Corporation, which became the only black-owned, independent film company to continually operate through the 1920s and 1930s. After rewriting his first book, he produced and directed it in 1919 as the film The Homesteader. This silent film was the first full-length movie produced by an African American.
Micheaux went on to produce more than 40 feature length films. He was the first African American to produce a sound film with The Exile (1931). His last film, Betrayal (1948), was the first African American-produced film to open in white theaters.
With limited funds to produce his movies, Micheaux found ways to cut corners. He couldn't afford to re-shoot scenes or film from multiple angles. While his films were sometimes criticized as being technically inferior, he was able to successfully mix entertainment with social messages.
Micheaux died in 1951 while on a promotional tour in North Carolina. He claimed two adopted homes, Harlem, New York; and Great Bend, Kansas. Micheaux chose to be buried in Kansas. His tombstone simply read, A Man Ahead of His Time. In 1988 the community erected a monument in memory of this pioneer American filmmaker.
Micheaux continues to receive recognition. He was inducted into the Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame, which honors him each February by presenting the Oscar Micheaux Award. The Directors Guild of America named him the posthumous recipient of the Golden Jubilee Special Directorial Award in 1986. Also that year he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Entry: Michaeux, Oscar
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: May 2012
Date Modified: May 2012
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