BHM 2023: Pearl Bowser Audio Visual Collection

Black History Month 2023: The Pearl Bowser AV Collection

Join the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in transcribing forty-one (41) audio cassettes from the Pearl Bowser audio visual collection for Black History Month 2023. The recordings, which consist of a collection of interviews, oral histories, conference presentations, and panel discussions, provide a unique vantage point from which listeners can witness the intersection between two ostensibly disparate phenomena: the often-overlooked role of African American women in the filmmaking industry and the rich tradition of African American activism and resistance.


Image of Pearl Bowser during outtakes from a film about the Fulton Ferry, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The story of African American filmmaking began well over a century ago when some African Americans, as an act of resistance, began creating their own films in a direct response to the negative stereotypes being portrayed about them in films such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) and later in the burgeoning mainstream Hollywood film industry writ large. These "race films," as they were called, told African American stories from African American perspectives and largely consisted of African American cast and crew. One of the pioneers of this movement was Oscar Micheaux, a homesteader-turned-filmmaker from Metropolis, Illinois. After making his first film, The Homesteader (1919), Micheaux went on to create approximately forty more films over four decades, making him one of the first and most prolific African American filmmakers to date, catapulting the careers of numerous African American actors and actresses. Unfortunately, Oscar Micheaux never won an Oscar, and by the mid-twentieth century he and many of his films had been all but forgotten. Enter Pearl Bowser. 



First edition of The Homesteader by Oscar Micheaux, 1917. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, 2014.37.51

In the late 1960s, Pearl Bowser, then a junior employee at a film agency, stumbled upon a book chapter about Micheaux. On a quest to metaphorically exhume the filmmaker and his work, she travelled west, interviewing many of his contemporaries. The trip launched a lifelong professional journey that culminated in Bowser creating a collection of films and film memorabilia, which she called "African Diaspora Images;" coauthoring a book about Micheaux, titled Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Audiences; and producing Midnight Ramble, a film about early 20th-century race films. In 2012, Bowser donated her extensive collection of films, film memorabilia, sound and video recordings, books, and papers to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It is one of the largest and richest sources of African American motion picture history held by any cultural institution in the United States.



Poster for Lying Lips, 1939. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of David A. Lowrance, 2011.160.3.

The forty-one (41) sound cassettes being transcribed for this project evince the extent to which Bowser surrounded herself in both past and contemporaneous film circles. They include unique interviews and oral histories with many lesser-known individuals familiar with the early film industry such as James Rundles, Lula Adams, Anita Bush, and Anita Beadle Scott, as well as with more prominent figures such as Shingzie Howard, Edna Mae Harris, Elizabeth “Liz” Shearer White, Gordon Parks, Arthur Jafa, and Lorenzo Tucker. But Pearl Bowser's activism was not limited to film scholarship and programming. She was immersed in a wide range of activist endeavors and she was part of many Black — and women-centered — activist circles. The cassettes also contain unique recorded interviews and presentations with women scholars and artists such as Ruby Dee, Sonia Sanchez, Elizabeth Catlett, Toni Cade Bambara, and several others. There are also recordings of conferences such as the world renowned Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), held in Burkina Faso; the Journey Across Three Continents (JA3C) film festival; and activist Freda Brown speaking at a women’s roundtable in Luanda, Angola. 


Photograph of Sonia Sanchez by Lloyd W. Yearwood, ca. 1960-1970. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Estate of Lloyd W. Yearwood, 2014.150.6.36.


In a 2012 conversation with NMAAHC curator Dr. Tuliza Fleming, Bowser stated that as a child her formal education never exposed her to the breadth of African American history. Consequently, she dedicated her life to studying and raising awareness of that history, especially as it relates to Black people in film. For Black History Month 2023, help NMAAHC continue in Pearl Bowser's tradition of highlighting Black women’s labor in the film industry and the activism and resistance inherent to that labor by transcribing audio from this unique collection, thereby increasing access to it. 



Lobby card for A Raisin in the Sun, 1961. Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © 1961 Columbia Pictures Corporation, 2013.118.134.2.


The digitization and transcription of the forty-one audiocassettes selected for this project was made possible through a joint venture between the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative (AWHI) and the Smithsonian Audiovisual Media Preservation Initiative (AVMPI).


Explore our site to find other African American history collections — including Freedmen's Bureau Records and additional materials from NMAAHC — to transcribe and explore all month long.