In 2015, the Black Film Center/Archive received support from the Humanities Collections and Reference Resources grant program of the National Endowment for the Humanities to conduct the Richard E. Norman and Race Filmmaking: Reprocessing and Digitization project, a three-pronged endeavor to reintegrate the dispersed papers of pioneering race film producer and distributor Richard E. Norman; to produce and publish a comprehensive new finding aid to the collection; and to digitize thousands of unique documents and other items in the collection for free public access online.
The Norman Collection represents one of the greatest caches of material relating to the burgeoning study of early African American movie-going culture and race films. Consisting of historical materials ranging from personal and business correspondence to censorship reports to production documentation to promotional artwork, the Norman Collection provides a corpus for scholars seeking to explore the industry of independently-produced, African American-themed films starring Black casts and exhibited to Black audiences that thrived from the late 1910s through the mid-1950s.
In the 1910s, Norman, who had previously been working in niche “Home Talent” movies, became aware of independent, underground race films being screened at Black-operated theaters throughout the segregated South and Midwest. Though he was white, he turned to race films as his principal business enterprise and produced a series of successful all-Black feature films including The Green-Eyed Monster (1919), The Bull-Dogger (1921), The Crimson Skull (1921), and The Flying Ace (1926). The films highlighted African American action and romance in what were, for their time, almost fantasy settings. The Flying Ace, for example, followed the adventures of one Captain Billy Stokes, an African American pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces, a career that was entirely inaccessible to Black men until 1940.
Norman was a meticulous record keeper in both his professional and personal life and the collection he left behind is remarkable as a near-complete record of the Norman Film Manufacturing Company, benefiting researchers of Norman specifically as well as historians of social migration, itinerant filmmaking, and the silent era race films. Beyond Norman’s substantial achievements, his well-documented relationships with the many performers, filmmakers, studios, and theater operators connected to the race circuit make this one of the most significant collections of a scarcely documented culture. Film historian Matthew H. Bernstein writes “It is impossible to overstate the importance of Norman’s papers.” Bernstein explains its value not only to film history, but to understanding “a distinct strain of black popular culture in the 20th century.” He continues, “Beyond the realm of race filmmaking, the Norman papers are the most illuminating archival resource in existence for reconstructing black film culture.”
Megan MacDonald, the Richard E. Norman project archivist, has worked with African Diasporic collections at Indiana University for nine years. Before joining the Black Film Center/Archive staff in 2015, she was an archivist for Indiana University’s Liberian Collections working with one of the largest collections of Liberian materials in the United States.
As part of this NEH-funded project, MacDonald has coordinated the reintegration of the Norman Collection, which had been distributed across two campus repositories following its donation by Norman’s son, Captain Richard Norman, in the 1980s. In this conversation from last spring, MacDonald discusses the complications and discoveries that accompany a large scale archival access project such as this.
Dorothy Berry: Can you tell me your position at the Black Film Center/Archive?
Megan MacDonald: Yes, I am the project archivist-slash-processing archivist for the Richard E. Norman Collection.
DB: Can you give a little background on what that collection entails?
MM: Yes, he [Norman] was a filmmaker in the 1920s, late 1910s, making at first… itinerant movies, where he would take the same movie plot and go around from city to city and film it with a new cast, a local cast, and then play it there for the townspeople to see. Then he got into race films, which were Black films for a Black audience, where the main characters were not the stereotypic slave “idiot” roles, and he made a few movies like that and was distributing those movies — these were all silent films.Once the sound movies came about, he stopped making movies but continued to distribute movies. This collection doesn’t have any film in it, because most of it’s been lost with time. [Norman’s extant film materials were donated to the Library of Congress in the 1970s.] [The collection] is mostly posters, and lobby cards, and photos, and all sorts of promotional materials, as well as distribution records from all the cities he traveled to. There’s a lot of correspondence. His brother was in the company with him, and his brother would be sent out to do some recruiting, to try to find theaters. It’s a little bit of everything, but no film for the film archives!
DB: I know the Norman collection was spread out at different repositories on the Indiana University campus, how is the reintegration process going?
MM: It’s been, for the most part, easy. It was spread out between the Lilly Library, which is the rare books library here, and the Black Film Center/Archive. It wasn’t split in obvious ways. So there’s distribution records in both places, correspondences in both places. It isn’t one series here and the rest stayed there or vice-versa. For the most part, materials have been at both collections and integrating has been pretty easy because the series are mostly the same. There’s always going to be a correspondence series in both archives, there’s always the distribution, publicity materials are always there…the subseries maybe got a little bit divided, but it was still easy to bring it back to the top level and reintegrate, and then make the subseries.
DB: Were there any exciting or compelling new discoveries during this reintegration process?
MM: Well, it was all new and exciting for me because I had never seen the collection before. Coming from an archival background that didn’t necessarily deal with media or this time frame, it just was so cool to see all the photos and have that more pop culture reference from a time frame that really doesn’t have… isn’t really well known to someone like me. So it’s been constant exciting discoveries!
DB: Have any scholars or researchers come to access the collection since you’ve begun?
MM: We have fielded a few research inquiries, like right now I’m talking to someone who has a Kickstarter-funded movie project about the Compton Cowboys, which is something I’m definitely not familiar with, but it’s like the cowboy culture in California, the Black cowboy Hollywood culture…not even Hollywood, but Compton area, going back all the way to the 1920s. He wants to use Bill Pickett, who is a famous cowboy actor from that time period and he’s in a couple of [Norman’s] movies, The Bull-Dogger and The Crimson Skull. We might be sending him some scans of the posters, and stuff to use for the film.
DD: Where is the project at currently in its timeline?
MM: We are about halfway through. The first phase was to reintegrate both the groupings into one complete collection and have it encoded in a finding aid, which we now have online. Then the start of this year we started the scanning project, which will take the rest of the grant time. Images are appearing online with the finding aid, and will continue to be added. We have two students who are working on it, and I’m working at it.
DD: Final question: the project proposal mentioned possible future digitization projects beyond this EAD finding aid and digital collection. What ideas can you envision for a project such as this?
MM: Interesting. A digital exhibit, especially something involved with film or African American history, especially where those two intersect. I’d be interested in collaborating with other repositories to do an online exhibit of materials. IU has great scholarly support with people like Cara Caddoo and Terri Francis. Hopefully we can also be involved with classes, for some sorts of online collaborative projects.
[Note: A version of this article, written by Dorothy Berry and Megan MacDonald, first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Black Camera.]