The Pioneering Black Filmmaker With a “Peculiar Name”

It is a peculiar name that ends with an eaux however and is considered an odd name for a colored man to have unless he is from Louisiana where the French crossed with the Indians and slaves causing many Louisiana negroes to have the French names and many speak the French language also. My father however came from Kentucky and inherited the name from his father who was sold off into Texas during the slavery period and is said to be living there today.

In this way, Oscar Micheaux introduced himself to readers in his autobiographical novel, “The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer.” Micheaux (or Mischeuax) was one of thousands of African-Americans who headed west in the early twentieth century to seek new opportunities in homesteading, and he describes the experience in two different novels – the Conquest and the Homesteader. Micheaux would later become a pioneer of a different sort, adapting the Homesteader into an early movie. Micheaux’s work is striking for its commentary on African-American life in the early 20th century, and his awareness of race in the period. But he is also clearly aware of, and intrigued by, his French roots.

Oscar Micheaux. Image: Wikipedia

Micheaux’s own description of his ancestry as quoted above is supplemented in the Homesteader through the words of the principal character, Jean Baptiste. “My father of course was born a slave like most almost all Negroes previous to the war and took the name from his master who I suppose was of French descent.” Oscar’s father, Calivn Swan Mscheaux, was born into slavery in Kentucky. Slaves are very rarely named on census records, but two Micheaux slaveholders are recorded in the 1850 census in Kentucky – a William M Micheaux, farmer, and Joseph W. Micheaux, physician, both of Calloway County. William Micheaux died in Texas, and may well be the owner of Oscar’s grandfather, David Micheaux. The slaveholders were most likely the descendants of French Huguenots, many of whom settled in colonial Virginia.  Because Oscar’s father Calvin is described in various sources as “mullato,” or multiracial, Oscar himself was probably related to these same Huguenots.

The Conquest and the Homesteader both tell variations of Oscar’s own journey, from the banks of the Ohio river in Illinois, to Chicago and finally to a homestead in North Dakota. Along the way, the principal characters, Oscar Devereaux and Jean Baptiste, respectively, struggle with the realities of race in 20th century America. Although they (and Oscar) are a generation away from slavery, they find life restrictive for African-Americans, even in a Northern city like Chicago, or the among the supposed opportunity of the West. Micheaux is not only the only black man on the train out west, but the only black man for miles around. This, he notes, wryly, has one advantage:

This was one place where being a colored man was an honorary distinction I remember how I once requested the stage driver to bring me some meat from Megory there being no meat shop in Calias and it was to be left at the post office. Apparently I had failed to give the stage driver my name for when I called for it it was handed out to me done up in a neat package and addressed “Colored Man Calias.” My neighbors soon learned however that my given name was Oscar but it was some time before they could all spell or pronounce the odd surname

The difficulty in spelling or pronouncing the “odd surname” will be familiar to many Franco-Americans. Elsewhere, his French name causes a problem for Micheaux. Having been dismissed from the Pullman Company (which employed many black porters) in Chicago, he hopes to be re-employed by the firm in St Louis. According to him, this was a common practice. But, as Micheaux explains, “I was at a greater disadvantage than Johnson, Smith, Jackson, or a number of other common names by having the odd French name that had always to be spelled slowly to a conductor or any one else who had occasion to know me.”

The question of race in Micheaux’s books is complicated. The homesteaders of whom Oscar is one, are settling on land taken from Native Americans by the United States. Micheaux is critical of African-Americans who are complacent or who lack the “guts” to try and make a life on the plains. However, the threads of discrimination and black solidarity are woven through the novels. On his arrival at Orristown, the US Commissioner and land agent is reluctant to sell Oscar any land, believing that he is “wast[ing] his time hauling a damn n_____ around over the reservation,” believing that Oscar had no money. After a business failing, Oscar worries that “the opinion was general that the solitary negro from the plush cushions of a Pullman would soon see that growing up with a new country was not to his liking and would be glad to sell at any old figure and beat it back to more ease and comfort.” His need to beat these expectations drives his ambition. In real life, Micheaux rejected the first offer to turn the Homesteader into a movie because the (white) filmmaker refused to allow him a role in the screenwriting. So Micheaux created his own production company and made the movie himself – with an all-black cast.

Newspaper advert for “The Homesteader” (1919). Image: Wikipedia.

One final element of the Conquest and the Homesteader speaks to the complications of race in Micheaux’s life. He falls in love with a “Scottish” woman – alternatively named Edith and Agnes – but is unable to marry her because she is white. Instead he marries a black woman named Orlean (the name of Micheaux’s real-life wife). Life his real marriage, the fictional marriage to Orlean is a failure. But the Homesteader has a happy ending when Jean Baptiste discovers that Agnes, while appearing white, is actually multiracial via her Caribbean French mother. This discovery allows the couple to be together in a way that is acceptable to the society of their time.

Micheaux’s books and films are very much of their time. They speak to the complicated reality of being African-American; then, and now. Micheaux’s clear identification of himself as being part-French is one more piece of this complicated puzzle.

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.