Stock Footage Spotlight: Historically Black Colleges and Universities in WWII

When scanning films in the National Archives Motion Picture Lab, we sometimes come across images that we want to learn more about. We recently transferred several reels of unedited footage depicting African American college students in various classroom settings. The posters on the wall indicated that the footage had been shot during wartime. The slates listed some names of schools and government agencies. Using that small amount of information, we began our search for the source of the footage.

Students in a Howard University chemistry class during World War II.
Students in chemistry class during World War II. (still from 306-LSS-254)

During the Cold War, the United States Information Agency (USIA) kept up a busy schedule of filmmaking, producing hundreds of films to project for foreign audiences a positive image of the United States. Because many USIA films dealt with similar topics, it was not always necessary to shoot entirely new footage for every title. In order to support its film production operations, the USIA maintained a library of stock footage, which could be quickly pulled and cut into its film projects. That library of stock shots is now held in the USIA record group at the National Archives and Records Administration.

The library contains footage and outtakes from a number of films produced during the New Deal and World War II. You can find shots from Pare Lorentz’s The River and even his unfinished Ecce Homo. There is footage of Arturo Toscanini as he conducts 1944’s Hymn of the Nations. The footage of African American students was shot for a film titled Negro Colleges in War Time.

Negro Colleges in Wartime was produced during World War II by the Office for Emergency Management and the Office of War Information to highlight the contributions of African American institutions to the war effort. It includes footage from four schools: Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, Hampton Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia, Prairie View College (now Prairie View A&M University) in Texas, and Howard University in Washington, DC.

The USIA library stock shot film reels contain high-quality footage of the campuses and students in their classes, likely struck from the original film negative. We see students at Tuskegee preparing for service in the US Army Air Forces as well as women chemistry students at Howard learning skills needed for munitions work. Prairie View students study agriculture and learn to forge machine parts and tools. Hampton provides skills courses for war workers in nearby shipyards.

At the time, education in the United States was highly segregated. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like those listed above provided educational opportunities that white schools denied African Americans. To learn more about the history of HBCUs, you can watch the documentary Tell Them We are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges & Universities which premiered on PBS’ Independent Lens on February 19, 2018. (The first 12 seconds of the trailer contain four shots from Negro Colleges in War Time!)