Mary Perry Smith, Co-Founder of the BFHFI, Passes

It is with great sadness that we announce the death of Mary Perry Smith. In addition to her roles as an educator, a philanthropist, and a promoter of black cultural heritage, Mary Perry Smith was a co-founder of Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Inc. (BFHFI).

For over thirty years Smith played many roles within the BFHFI, as well, including serving as the first chairperson of the advisory board, coordinator and chair of the Educational Programs Committee, and board president from 1984 through the mid-1990s. Much of the organization’s archives, including records documenting its early history as a project of the Oakland Museum’s Cultural and Ethnics Affairs Guild in 1974, fell under Mary’s vigilant care.

Cultural and Ethnic Affairs Committee chairpersons Mary Perry Smith, Margot Hicks and Donald Therence with Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inductee, Sammy Davis, Jr., 1974

Cultural and Ethnic Affairs Guild chairpersons Mary Perry Smith, Margot Hicks and Donald Therence with Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame inductee, Sammy Davis, Jr., 1974

The annual highlight of the BFHFI from 1974—1993 was its Black History Month Celebration, which included the star-studded Oscar Micheaux Awards Ceremony and a celebrity dinner and dance gala. Inductees and awardees included filmmakers and artists such as Paul Robeson, Stepin Fetchit, Gordon Parks, Sammy Davis, Jr., Diahann Carol, Dizzy Gillespie, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Julie Dash, Spike Lee, Brock Peters, Maya Angelou, Tempest Bledsoe, Jim Brown, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Richard Pryor, and many, many others. The celebration also included a film and lecture series, film symposium, and film competition co-hosted and co-sponsored by UC Berkeley, the Oakland Museum, and the BFHFI.

A large-scale volunteer effort, the Hall of Fame soon outgrew the resources and energy of the staff at the Oakland Museum and so it became an incorporated non-profit organization in 1978. In addition to its annual Black History Month Celebration, the BFHFI also sponsored and hosted master classes, workshops, film screenings, and other educational events throughout the year. Smith was heavily involved in the planning and oversight of many of these events. 1990 marked the start of Black Filmworks, a film festival designed to showcase landmark films and winning submissions to the annual film competition.

Mary Perry Smith with special directorial award presented posthumously to Oscar Micheaux by the Directors Guild of America, 1986

Mary Perry Smith with special directorial award presented posthumously to Oscar Micheaux by the Directors Guild of America, 1986

Besides administrative records and souvenir items, the BFHFI archives include highlights such as a dress and boots worn by Ruby Dee in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a pair of Harold Nicholas’s tap shoes, signed celebrity hand prints created under the supervision of Casper Banjo, two Oscar Micheaux novels signed by the author, an oil painting of Madame Sul-Te-Wan from the collection of early film aficionado Manny Weltman, and the papers, photographs, and audio recordings of jazz composer and arranger Phil Moore. The BFHFI’s long sought after goal was to establish a brick and mortar museum to house and exhibit items such as these. The archives also contain over 1000 video recordings that include footage of BFHFI events and nearly 20 years’ worth of submissions to the annual film competition.

Smith donated the BFHFI archives to the BFC/A in February 2014 (see previous story). Since then our staff has worked diligently to process approximately 300 boxes full of material. The media recordings are slated to undergo digital preservation as part of Indiana University’s Media Preservation and Digitization Initiative starting this fall through fall 2018. Several items will also be displayed as part of an exhibit hosted at the Grunwald Gallery located on the IU Bloomington campus from October 23rd through November 18th as a means of increasing awareness of the collection throughout and beyond the IU community.

Smith has left behind a breathtaking legacy. Her tireless efforts greatly influenced the shape and direction of the BFHFI and garnered recognition and support of black filmmakers and artists for over thirty years. Her careful stewardship of the collection has ensured that this and future generations will have access to this invaluable record of black filmmaking in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Details on a celebration of her life are forthcoming.

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About BFC/A

The Black Film Center/Archive at Indiana University was established in 1981 as the first archival repository dedicated to collecting, preserving, and making available historically and culturally significant films by and about black people. The BFC/A's primary objectives are to promote scholarship on black film and to serve as an open resource for scholars, researchers, students, and the general public; to encourage creative film activity by independent black filmmakers; and to undertake and support research on the history, impact, theory, and aesthetics of black film traditions. View all posts by BFC/A

3 responses to “Mary Perry Smith, Co-Founder of the BFHFI, Passes

  • Ben Hazard

    I was the curator of Special Exhibits & Education at The Oakland Museum from 1970 — 1981. I created the Cultural and Ethnic Affairs Guild to provide community input and involvement in the Oakland Museum. With Mary as Chair and strong community support many programs were developed, with BFHF being the most dynamic and successful. I design the first series of Oscar Micheaux Awards. I have some of the duplicate awards in my possession if you are interested in accepting them to add to the collection.

  • L. Thomas Frye

    I was chief curator of history at The Oakland Museum from 1969 – 1996. I worked closely with Ben Hazard, Mary, and the Cultural and Ethnic Affairs Guild on numerous exhibits and programs. I did a video oral history with Mary in 1994 on the occasion of the museum’s 25th anniversary. Parts of that oral history covered the founding of the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame at the Oakland Museum. Excerpts from that oral history video covering the founding of the Cultural and Ethnic Affairs Guild will be screened at the celebration of her life on November 5th at the Oakland Museum

    Tom Frye

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