Oscar Micheaux

Oscar Micheaux walked the walk, talked the talk, wrote the book, and made the movie; he was perhaps more than anyone, deserving of the title: The Homesteader.

Born in the nineteenth century on a farm near the oddly named town of Metropolis, Illinois, Oscar Micheaux was one of thirteen children.  The family name suggests French origins.  Oscar’s family was Black, his parents ex-slaves from Texas, so the connection to French lineage could have come through Louisiana.  It has long been acknowledged that the French made little discrimination of color, either back home where they mixed happily with exotic immigrants, or here in the New World where they intermarried with both Native Americans and people of African origin.  Possibly because of his roots in at least two worlds, two cultures, Oscar soon distinguished himself from his fellow Blacks.  He was hypersensitive to racial discrimination and felt a need both to act against it and write about it—at a time when most of his race were still afraid to speak out.

Moving to Chicago when he was 17 for employment, Oscar’s discomfort at the lifestyle of urban Black, especially his own brother, increased his dissatisfaction with the social order.  He moved from job to job and began to display an entrepreneurial spirit that would serve him well all his life.

In 1905, Oscar had the impulse that gripped many Americans at the time (many of them newly arrived, and most of them White, it should be said): to grab a piece of land offered for homesteading, in this case by lottery in South Dakota.  Lamentably, the lands that were opened up at the time were portions of what had earlier been deemed reservations for the Lakota Sioux.  The Sioux slowly got pushed onto smaller pieces while earth-hungry settlers rushed in to claim their traditional territory, even the land that had been ceded to them in various U.S. government treaties, land they had cherished and utilized for hundreds of years.  Oscar tried for the lottery but did not win (the odds being several thousand entrants vying for 25 sixty-acre plots) so he used some of his savings to buy a 160-acre claim, and another and another, eventually owning about a thousand acres.

In South Dakota, Oscar would encounter racial issues many times, but one suspects he was prepared for them.  His romantic streak took sway when he met and married a woman who later disappeared with his child and as many of his possessions as she could carry off.  His inclination to become self-sufficient and succeed in the farming business was also satisfied, like his yen for marriage, for a few good years—until a drought struck.

During his life on the claim, Oscar began to write.  He gained some notice for articles about farming techniques.  He also used his writing skills to proselytize, sending letters to his friends back East touting the rewards and virtues of the homesteading life.  At some point during his South Dakota sojourn, Micheaux penned two books about his homesteading years that would permanently change his life and fortunes: The Conquest and The Homesteader.  The Homesteader would become a film, one of many that Oscar would personally direct and produce.

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In his first book, The Conquest, Micheaux called himself Oscar Devereaux (his actual middle name).  The events in the book so closely parallel what is known about his life history that most people have taken it for a barely disguised memoir.  In his other work set in South Dakota, The Homesteader, his hero/alter ego is Black homesteader Jean Baptiste; this book reads more like fiction but, despite the differing hero’s names, the two books bear a lot of similarities, The Homesteader following through on some plot threads developed in The Conquest.

There are several things that caught my attention—and kept it—in reading Micheaux’s books: 1) Micheaux had a good head for plotting.  2) He was also able to write descriptively, even when simply talking about the nitty-gritty details of the homesteader’s life.  3) Unlike other homestead-fiction writers such as Laura Ingalls Wilder who, like Micheaux, lived in South Dakota in the state’s formative years, he does not extol the virtues of simplicity and basic living, seeing these instead as challenges to be “conquered” in his determination to make something of himself.  4) He fills in a picture of the struggles of farming people who want to be townspeople, “boosters” trying to get roads and services to their local regions instead of being forced to live far away from conveniences, and of the constant tension between the railroad barons’ profit-driven agenda and the needs of the settlers.  5) He highlights such rarely remembered scenes as community meetings, fairs, town gossip, and factionalism that sprang up as homesteaders sought to become owners of their property and spokespeople for their grievances.  In a sense, Micheaux had the perfect perch for observing, as a Black man, always on the fringe.

In both books, the author immediately identifies the central character’s race; in The Conquest as “Oscar Devereaux” he acknowledges to his readers that his French moniker was “an odd name for a colored man to have.”

In the initial chapters of The Conquest he comments that at one time, there were many families like his, ex-slaves who had settled in the Midwest and West to take advantage of the farming lifestyle, but gradually (as could be said of even the current generation) the young people left farms for the attractions of the cities.

Micheaux characterizes Oscar/Jean as a promising student who liked books, but the schools he went to as “inadequate in many respects”.  His lack of interest in field-hand work provoked his father to send him to do marketing, and that was serendipitous; apparently a good talker, he always garnered plenty of orders.  The result was that the truck-farming part of the family enterprise paid for itself, while his siblings complained that he had the easy work.  But Oscar was anxious to get away from his home region where, as he saw it, Blacks were perennially poor and locked into their country ways.  He was disparaging of the “shouting” church that his mother attended and hated having to serve meals for the preacher.  He went from odd job to odd job.  He took his savings from those jobs and went to see his sister, a teacher who introduced him to a pretty girl named Jessie.  From there, he migrated to Chicago “on my own hook.”

Finding his brother in the big city, broke and lacking ambition, he was dismayed, seeing his people as willing to live for today and make no plan for the morrow.  He again began taking odd jobs, once working shoveling coal, bringing to life for me the old song, “Sixteen Tons”… Oscar once “cracked and heaved” sixteen tons of coal in one day for the pitiful wage of eighty-nine cents.  Finally, he found a man willing to give him a room in exchange for chores and let him keep the money he made from shining shoes.  By now we know that Oscar would excel at any business that involved “customer service” so he made more money than most at the shoe-shining trade.  Eventually, he parlayed his talents into a lucrative job as a Pullman porter, a “run on a parlor car” on a railroad line that had a Western route.  He gazed out the window, watching the plains and mountains roll by, and finally… “westward I journeyed to the land of raw material, which my dreams had pictured to me as the land of real beginning…”

Losing out of the land lottery like the real-life Oscar, The Conquest‘s Devereaux hired a real estate agent to drive him out to the far reaches of the region near Oristown, South Dakota (in real life, the town of Gregory), where he had noted that the soil was richer.  He found a plateau with running streams and fell in love with it, meanwhile falling in love from afar with Jessie and writing to her about the land.  But he vowed not to take her there until he had built his property up to a high standard, again underscoring his wish not to be satisfied with second-best.  He was South Dakota’s first Black settler.

His first dwelling had no floor “but the short, thick buffalo grass made a neat carpet.”  He describes in great detail his attempt to dig up soggy sods of prairie in damp weather with two sullen horses.  Horse and mule trading became another one of his skills, by necessity.  He got to where he could turn over ten or twelve acres of sod in a week, claiming that he had ​taken​ “a fourteen-hundred mile walk to follow the plow in breaking the one hundred and twenty acres.”

He knew his neighbors, many of whom were immigrants, but he was the lone Black person and not able to mix readily.  He recalls meeting people whose children had never seen a colored man.  However, he gained his neighbors’ respect by clearing his 160 acres alone, when some White families were barely able to cope with 60.  At some point, people stopped thinking of him as a “free-go-easy-coon” (his words) and saw him as one of them, a “booster” who cared about the fate of their farms and their region.

He quickly got involved with civic issues.  One matter of increasing irritation to the settlers was the railroad cartels.  The men who did business in brick buildings by the railroad track had no interest in building roads to connect the little shacks on the plains to the more prosperous burgeoning towns.  The homesteaders had already waited twenty years and still no road, as the men in the brick buildings had a hold on the purse strings. Oscar’s observations of the battles amongst settlers, railroads, and banks is a lesson in itself about the many different forces that came into play for settlers in that era, the last gasp of widespread government-sponsored homesteading in America.

Behind the settlers’ bid for a voice was the ever vexing issue of the exploitation of reservation lands.  The enforced docility of Native peoples was not to be a permanent condition as very recent events still demonstrate.  And behind the human complications, there was the never-ending story of the need, the crying need, for rain, that neither bankers nor railroad barons could buy.

And then, as Micheaux observed, the automobile was thrown into the mix as a blessing to the lonely farmers, eating up the distances and making everyone a minor baron.

Oscar took periodic trips back to Chicago and urged old friends to resettle and show their gumption out west… but without result.  By the middle of The Conquest Oscar is still decrying those of his race who refused to “accept the success of the White race as an example.”  His thinking was clearly influenced by Booker T. Washington, to whom he dedicated his writing.  Washington, the original director of the Tuskegee Institute, promulgated his conviction that African Americans should manage their own destiny, work hard, make the most of their talents and thereby gain the acceptance of the White majority.

The Conquest, sometimes seen subtitled The Story of a Negro Pioneer or something similar, is a memoir, while The Homesteader is framed more like a novel, with a love-and-loss theme involving a beautiful, unattainable woman who continually beguiles the book’s hero.  For the real-life Oscar Micheaux, marriage was a disappointment, and the dream of homesteading collapsed rather suddenly, after eight years, with one cataclysmic year: “It was a year of coincidences; the greatest drought known for years, followed by the coldest winter and the heaviest snows, and these in turn by disastrous floods, will live long in memory.”

Micheaux’s fictional depiction of Dakota homesteading in all its facets caught the attention of a filmmaker, but Micheaux declined the offer when he found he wouldn’t be allowed to be part of the production.  It was obvious he had bigger plans, of becoming a producer and director.  Soon afterward, he formed his own self-titled film company and went on to become an innovative, highly-productive creator of what was known at the time as “race” movies; “race” being a coded way of indicating that the cast, crew, and all involved were not White.  His silent production of The Homesteader was a popular and critical success, though, quite sadly, the film is now lost.

Oscar Micheaux, author of seven books and over forty films both silent and sound, is celebrated in the annals of cinema as an early, tireless experimenter who always had to work with low budgets and unknown actors while overcoming deep-seated prejudices against people of his race.  He brought his stories to a very appreciative audience of African Americans who watched his dramatic, realistic sagas unfold in segregated or all-Black movie theaters.  He died in 1951, his life having spanned the old and modern eras of agriculture, technology, and race relations.  In 1987, he was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and in 1996, inducted into the Director’s Guild of America.

And he is also recognized and remembered as a famous South Dakota homesteader and a notable African American homesteader.  He fulfilled his own conviction that anyone, even a child of former slaves, could distinguish himself and enjoy the beneficent glow—if faint, if distant—of the American dream.

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