An Uneasy Birth

Marking the 100th Anniversary of D. W. Griffith’s Controversial Landmark Film, The Birth of a Nation

While recently pulling materials for an exhibit on silent films, I happened upon a small promotional flyer, probably from Blacksburg’s Lyric Theatre, for D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, which saw its initial theatrical release on March 3, 1915.

Though Griffith’s work is considered a watershed in cinematic history, few today can claim to have watched it in its entirety. The film’s relegation to a remote corner of public consciousness can be attributed to its silent film format (considered quaint or boring by most modern viewers) and to its treatment of a subject matter that is today widely seen as repugnant.

The Birth of a Nation purports to tell the story of America’s Civil War and the origin of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction. In doing so, the film portrays the Klan as a noble organization devoted to protecting Southern society from marauding bands of brutish, lecherous Freedmen and their manipulative, hypocritical carpetbagger allies.

The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the film’s content and point of view.
The Birth of a Nation flyer cover, depicting a cross-wielding Klan member in full regalia sitting astride a rearing horse, hints strongly at the film’s content and point of view.

 

The plot for The Birth of a Nation was based on Thomas F. Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman, the second volume in a trilogy about the Reconstruction South. A North Carolina Baptist minister, attorney, and state legislator, Dixon became a popular author around the turn of the 20th century, publishing more than 20 novels. The Clansman

The Clansman is among five of Dixon’s novels held by Special Collections. The library’s main collection holds several more titles.
The Clansman is among five of Dixon’s novels held by Special Collections. The library’s main collection holds several more titles.

is today remembered as his most famous (or infamous) work, and from it was drawn the film’s Southern apologist version of the Klan’s origins.

In bringing Dixon’s tale to the screen, Griffith spared no expense and pioneered a number of moviemaking techniques and technologies: The Birth of a Nation is said to have been the first film to employ night photography, panning motion shots, the iris effect, the intercutting of parallel action sequences, and many more advances that would become mainstays of cinematic narrative. Griffith also employed hundreds of extras in staging epic Civil War battle scenes and interspersed his story with accurate tableaux of scenes from American history. The film was unlike anything that movie-going audiences had seen to that time.

 

Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the film’s production.
Inside, the flyer lists some of the innovations and enormous costs associated with the film’s production.

Griffith’s accuracy and attention to detail exploited the public’s willingness to take its history lessons from fictionalized accounts. An uninformed audience, seeing accurately portrayed historical scenes presented side-by-side with Dixon’s skewed view of events, might be partially forgiven for accepting all as fact. Even supposedly knowledgeable viewers, however, were enthralled by Griffith’s prowess as a storyteller. The film is said to have been the first to be screened in the White House. After seeing it, President Wilson, himself a historian, reportedly said, “It is like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” The film’s widespread popularity and its audience’s impressionability are credited with being partially responsible for the KKK’s resurgence and rise to political prominence during the 1910s and 1920s.

CAPTION: A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed historic events with a subjective, fanciful view of the Klan’s origins.
A page from the flyer illustrates how The Birth of a Nation mixed accurate historical depictions of the Civil War with with a subjective, fanciful interpretation of events.

Even in 1915, however, the film spurred controversy. The NAACP staged protests in several major cities and made repeated efforts to have the film banned from theaters. Letter-writing campaigns sought to educate the public on the facts of Reconstruction and to warn of the film’s inflammatory nature, while boycotts attempted to provide economic deterrents against the film’s release. Such efforts were in fact successful in having the film banned from the theatres of a handful of large cities but could not prevent its nationwide release.

Testimony to its immense popularity at the time, The Birth of a Nation continued to enjoy periodic revivals for years, and it is said to have remained America’s highest-grossing film until being toppled by another Civil War / Reconstruction epic, Gone with the Wind, more than twenty years later.

Despite his film’s overwhelming commercial success, Griffith was not immune to criticism. Partially in response to negative comments on his film’s racially intolerant themes, Griffith released his magnum opus, Intolerance, the following year. The three-and-a-half hour epic tells four parallel stories from different time periods of human history, each illustrating the catastrophic consequences of intolerance. Griffith would continue to make films throughout the silent era with varying degrees of success, but he never again matched the achievements of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance.

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Should The Birth of a Nation be considered an early cinematic masterpiece that is marred by its skewed interpretation of history and its outdated, hateful view of racial relations, or should any film (or other work of art) be considered a masterpiece when it advocates a point of view that is later almost universally abhorred as destructive and wrongheaded? In answering this question in his 2003 review of the film in 2003, critic Roger Ebert wrote: “’The Birth of a Nation’ is not a bad film because it argues for evil… [I]t is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil.”

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Hidden History at Special Collections: The Hammet Family Papers

When not discarded out of hand, personal papers and organizational records can sometimes—-through a series of bequeathals, purchases, and other transfers-—make their way into the most unexpected places. And no matter how detailed the guide to a manuscript collection may be, sometimes these items can go unnoticed by researchers. Such seems to be the case with the collection I’m going to tell you about today: the Hammet Family Papers, which made their way into the papers of Virginia Governor J. Hoge Tyler and have remained there in relative obscurity despite being every bit as interesting as anything in Tyler’s own papers.

Long-time residents of the New River Valley and in-laws to Governor Tyler, the Hammets became owners of Mississippi’s Lammermoor cotton plantation through William Henry Hammet (1799-1865), Edward’s brother. After graduating from the University of Virginia, William moved to Mississippi and established a medical practice in Vicksburg. In 1837, he married Evalina Metcalfe, and property laws of the era gave Hammet ownership of Lammermoor, which had passed to Evalina following the death of her first husband. Whether the plantation later passed to his brother following William’s death or had been purchased earlier is unclear. Among the papers, however, is Edward’s written offer to purchase Lammermoor and its slaves for $300,000, an enormous amount of money at the time.

Some weeks after Mississippi seceded from the Union--and some weeks before Virginia would take the same step--Edward Hammet offered his brother $300,000 for Lammermoor and its slaves, plus another $50,000 for another plantation in a neighboring county.
Some weeks after Mississippi seceded from the Union–and some weeks before Virginia would take the same step–Edward Hammet offered his brother $300,000 for Lammermoor and its slaves, plus another $50,000 for another plantation in a neighboring county.

The Hammet Family Papers contain a treasure trove of records detailing the plantation’s operations, chronicling both antebellum and post-war cotton sales, as well as accounts with freedmen employed by the plantation. Also within the collection is Hammet’s medical ledger. With entries beginning in Vicksburg in 1836, then moving to Lammermoor after his 1837 marriage and continuing through 1851, Hammet lists the names of his debtors and briefly notes medicines dispensed and services performed. He seems to have been often called upon to treat injured and ailing slaves on neighboring plantations.

A sample page from William Hammet's medical practice account book. The first entry, from March 10, 1837, reads, "Col. Pursey To seting [sic] fractured leg for negro + 3 subsequent visits for [ditto] [$]50--." The larger handwriting at bottom left is that of Governor Tyler, who used this and other account books of the Hammets to record his own business transactions some decades later.
A sample page from William Hammet’s medical practice account book. The first entry, from March 10, 1837, reads, “Col. Pursey To seting [sic] fractured leg for negro + 3 subsequent visits for [ditto] [$]50–.” The larger handwriting at bottom left is that of Governor Tyler, who used this and other account books of the Hammets to record his own business transactions some decades later.
Also included in the collection are the papers of James P. Hammet (1832-1879), son of Edward Hammet and a graduate of the University of Virginia medical school. Following the death of his uncle William, James Hammet lived in Mississippi for a time, managing affairs at Lammermoor. Among Hammet’s papers are various records describing the work of freedmen, presumably at Lammermoor. The records include lists of workers’ names, days worked, rations issued, goods provided, and pay vouchers. Elsewhere, Hammet details infractions by workers, together with the fines he imposed on them for damages and as punishment.

Many of the journal entries made by James P. Hammet while managing operations of Lammermoor relate to fines he imposed on freedmen working at Lammermoor. The entry for March 30, 1866 reads: "Isaiah Green Wm Rayford overturned a wagon, Bale of Hay in water...  By [cause?] - Carelessness - Refused to pick it up - laid over night. Damages $10-." Elsewhere Hammet says of the workers, "A more triffling [sic] set never were congregated together."
Many of the journal entries made by James P. Hammet while managing operations of Lammermoor relate to fines he imposed on freedmen working at Lammermoor. The entry for March 30, 1866 reads: “Isaiah Green Wm Rayford overturned a wagon, Bale of Hay in water… By [cause?] – Carelessness – Refused to pick it up – laid over night. Damages $10-.” Elsewhere Hammet says of the workers, “A more triffling [sic] set never were congregated together.”
 A tally of days worked by hands on Lammermoor Plantation, 1866. The number of hands listed (50) hints at the size of the plantation.

A tally of days worked by hands on Lammermoor Plantation, 1866. The number of hands listed (50) hints at the size of the plantation.
Voucher for wages due Charlotte Miller, freedwoman, by Lammermoor Plantation in 1866. Miller acknowledged receipt, by making her mark, on the reverse side of the slip.
Voucher for wages due Charlotte Miller, freedwoman, by Lammermoor Plantation in 1866. Miller acknowledged receipt, by making her mark, on the reverse side of the slip.
Among the business records of Lammermoor Plantation is what appears to be the account book of the plantation's store. This page details tobacco sold by the store. Many--perhaps all--of the purchasers were freedmen employed by the plantation.
Among the business records of Lammermoor Plantation is what appears to be the account book of the plantation’s store. This page details tobacco sold by the store. Many–perhaps all–of the purchasers were freedmen employed by the plantation.

In addition to the Mississippi records, Hammet’s papers contain his Virginia financial records, including those of his medical practice. A ledger maintained by Hammet includes detailed descriptions of a number of cases—among them the delivery of several babies—apparently while he studied medicine in Philadelphia. Hammet’s papers contain general account documents and a daybook (1873-1878) for his Christiansburg medical practice. The doctor lists patients’ names, services rendered, and fees. Elsewhere are a number of invoices from Hammet for services rendered to various patients, among them a number of African Americans.

A page from the Reconstruction-era daybook of James P. Hammet's medical practice in Christiansburg. Hammet records patient name, an abbreviated description of services rendered ("v" for "visit," "pres" for "prescription"?), and his fee. The first entry is for services rendered to Eliza Wood but charged to the county's overseer of the poor.
A page from the Reconstruction-era daybook of James P. Hammet’s medical practice in Christiansburg. Hammet records patient name, an abbreviated description of services rendered (“v” for “visit,” “pres” for “prescription”?), and his fee. The first entry is for services rendered to Eliza Wood but charged to the county’s overseer of the poor.

Though they’re “buried” in our collections, the Hammet papers are well worth the dig and would be a valuable resource for researchers interested in Southern plantations, race relations during Reconstruction, 19th century medicine, or southwestern Virginia history. Further information on the Hammet Family Papers, comprising Series XI of the J. Hoge Tyler Family Papers, may be found in the collection’s finding aid.