The Story of Kansas

June 21, 2010

Kansas filmmaker Oscar Micheaux gets stamp

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series' name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: "To the stars through difficulties."

This is one in a series of vignettes celebrating history. The series’ name comes from the state motto, Ad astra per aspera: “To the stars through difficulties.”

Although he traveled extensively around the nation making and promoting more than three dozen movies, there were only two places Oscar Micheaux called home:

Harlem. And Great Bend.

“With all his family out here, this was home,” said Karen Neuforth, executive director of the Barton County Arts Council in Great Bend.

On Tuesday, post offices nationally will begin selling a 44-cent postage stamp commemorating Micheaux, a pioneering African-American filmmaker.

Also on Tuesday, the Columbia School of the Arts in New York is hosting a celebration of the stamp that features a movie trailer on the upcoming movie “Oscar’s Comeback” a work by Lisa Collins, a director and producer at Columbia.

The Micheaux stamp will also be celebrated in Harlem.

But some Kansans have already begun celebrating.

On Saturday, members of Micheaux’s family, postal authorities and fans gathered in Great Bend to receive a framed enlargement of the stamp and honor Micheaux’s contributions.

It is all a fitting tribute to a man ahead of his time, said Alfreda Micheaux of Wichita, a second cousin to the filmmaker.

Oscar Micheaux was Hollywood’s first African-American movie producer and the first to use all-black casts. He was also a writer and entrepreneur of edgy movies with racial themes.

He made 43 movies from 1919 to 1948 and is still considered one of the most prolific African-American movie producers of all time.

Growing up, Alfreda Micheaux remembers sitting on the family’s front porch in Great Bend and hearing her relatives talk about their famous cousin.

“I’d overhear them talking about their fear for Oscar,” she said. “Because as he went from state to state, city to city trying to promote his movies, they were afraid he would be killed. I never got to see him.”

In 1901, Oscar Micheaux was barely noticed when he moved to the sand hills south of Great Bend to be near relatives who had homesteaded in Stafford County.

By the late 1910s, he moved on, first homesteading in South Dakota — then writing and producing movies in earnest.

Periodically, he would return home to Kansas. He died in 1951 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the Great Bend cemetery for nearly four decades.

Then local historians, film buffs and Hollywood celebrities began researching his life. Fans included Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, Alfreda Micheaux said.

A headstone was put in place in 1988.

In 1987, Oscar Micheaux received a star on Hollywood Boulevard.

Alfreda Micheaux said she remembers traveling in other parts of the nation and when people would find out her maiden name, they’d ask whether she was related to the filmmaker.

“I was astonished they knew about him,” she said. “Even in New York, people knew about him. His movies are in the Smithsonian Institution. People here don’t know about that. And yet, the man lived right here.”

The Micheaux stamp is the 33rd stamp in the Black Heritage series honoring African-Americans. The series was started in 1978.

The last Kansan recognized in the series was in 2006 when the U.S. Post Office recognized Wichitan and Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel, who played “Mammy” in “Gone With The Wind” in 1939.

In 2002, Harlem Renaissance writer and poet Langston Hughes was recognized. Hughes was from Topeka and Lawrence.

Brian Sperry, regional spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said the agency receives more than 50,000 requests each year for commemorative stamps. A stamp advisory committee, comprising historians, artists and sports authorities, narrows the list down to 25 subjects for the U.S. Postmaster to review and approve.

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