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Dick Lehr at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home
5:30 – 7:00 p.m.
HC Members Only
On September 25, Historic Columbia is pleased to host a members’ only reception for Dick Lehr at the Woodrow Wilson Family Home. Lehr’s book, The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War, is an outstanding counter-history of the reaction and impact of one of early cinema’s most famous films.
Attendees will be invited to tour the Wilson Home to better understand the connection between the 28th president and the incendiary film. The author will sign books, which will be available for purchase on site. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org to confirm your attendance.
In addition to the September 25 event, Historic Columbia and the History Center at USC are co-sponsoring a public talk on the book, with film clips from The Birth of a Nation, at the Nickelodeon Theater on September 26 at 7 p.m. This is a free event, but there is limited seating and reservations are required.
Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of a Nation
As a college professor, Woodrow Wilson wrote, “Reconstruction is still a revolutionary matter…..those who delve into it find it like a banked fire.” Reconstruction in South Carolina ended with the election of Wade Hampton as governor in 1876, just two years after Wilson, then known as Tommy, left his family home here in Columbia. Wilson still felt the heat of that “banked fire” in the White House, almost 40 years later. The first sitting president to view films in the White House, in 1915 Wilson viewed The Birth of a Nation, an epic silent film based on a book written by one of his college acquaintances. The Birth of a Nation, set in South Carolina with some scenes in Wilson’s former hometown of Columbia, offered a racist interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
While watching The Birth of a Nation, would Wilson have recalled his years in Columbia? What he thought of the film he did not say, leaving historians to interpret the event in a variety of ways. However, by his viewing it the movie’s producers capitalized on the White House connection, claiming the president endorsed it.
Today, the Woodrow Wilson Family Home, operated by Historic Columbia, is a physical connection to Reconstruction and a window into how this era has been represented historically and how it is remembered to today. It also allows 21st century visitors to ask important questions about how Reconstruction shaped a boy who would be president. Visit historiccolumbia.org for information on taking a house tour of the Woodrow Wilson Family Home.
More on Mr. Lehr’s book The Birth of a Nation: How a Legendary Filmmaker and Crusading Editor Reignited America’s Civil War
In 1915, two men-one a journalist agitator, the other a technically brilliant filmmaker-incited a public confrontation that roiled America, pitting black against white, Hollywood against Boston, and free speech against civil rights. William Monroe Trotter and D. W. Griffith were fighting over a film that dramatized the Civil War and Reconstruction in a post-Confederate South. Almost fifty years earlier, Monroe’s father, James, was a sergeant in an all-black Union regiment that marched into Charleston, South Carolina, just as the Kentucky cavalry-including “Roaring Jake” Griffith, D. W.’s father-fled for their lives. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation, included actors in blackface, heroic portraits of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, and a depiction of Lincoln’s assassination. Freed slaves were portrayed as villainous, vengeful, slovenly, and dangerous to the sanctity of American values. It was tremendously successful, eventually seen by 25 million Americans. But violent protests against the film flared up across the country.
Monroe Trotter’s titanic crusade to have the film censored became a blueprint for dissent during the 1950s and 1960s. This is the fiery story of a revolutionary moment for mass media and the nascent civil rights movement, and the men clashing over the cultural and political soul of a still-young America standing at the cusp of its greatest days.
“D. W. Griffiths’ 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, may have been billed as the ‘Most Wonderful Motion Picture Ever,’ but to African Americans of the Jim Crow era, it was a grotesque reminder of how invisible their true lives-their history and their dreams-were across the color line. Speaking out against the white-hooded nostalgia the film inflamed, William Monroe Trotter, Harvard’s first black Phi Beta Kappa graduate and a leading newspaper editor, revived a protest tradition that would set the stage for the civil rights movement to follow. Distinguished journalist Dick Lehr’s account of this racial debate is not only enthralling to read; it reminds us of the singular importance of ‘the birth of’ Monroe Trotter.”
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
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