One of our Motion Picture Preservation Lab staff identified a remarkable film in a recent accession of audiovisual material from the National Park Service (NPS). The film features amateur footage of George Washington Carver, the famed African-American botanist and inventor who taught for decades at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama. During his time at Tuskegee, Dr. Carver published forty-four bulletins for farmers covering many agricultural topics, with the most popular being How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption.
The film was shot in 1937 by Dr. C. Allen Alexander, an African-American surgeon from Kalamazoo, Michigan. Dr. Alexander wrote a letter in 1981 offering the film to the George Washington Carver National Monument in Missouri, part of the NPS. The letter explains the provenance of the film in detail:
From your knowledge of the history of this great man [Dr. Carver], you know that he was a very private individual, who did not permit publicity concerning himself, and as a consequence would not permit any commercial firm to make any movie scenes of him or his work.
In 1937, his assistant [Dr. Austin W. Curtis], his closest associate, persuaded him to permit some private individual to make some short movie sequences of him. I was asked to do this by Dr. [Curtis]. I spent some time at Tuskegee and was fortunate enough to make a few sequences, totaling about 15 minutes.
This was made just at the time the Kodak Co. released color film for amateur photographers and fortunately they came out in excellent condition. These original film scenes I sent to Kodak Co. for treatment for preservation; I have them stored in my bank vault.
Thanks to the care given by Dr. Alexander, and later the NPS, the film is indeed in excellent condition. Though many of the earliest Kodachrome films suffer from severe color fading, the stock used for this film was manufactured once Kodak had perfected the Kodachrome chemistry. We see color that is as vibrant as the day it was processed.
The film includes scenes of Dr. Carver in his apartment, office, and laboratory, as well as images of him tending his flowers and displaying several of his paintings. At one point we see Dr. Carver exiting an elevator that was installed as a gift from his friend Henry Ford. Other notable people appearing in the film are Dr. John Chenault, the orthopedic surgeon and polio doctor who served as director of the Infantile Paralysis Unit at Tuskegee’s John A. Andrew Memorial Hospital, and Carver’s assistant Dr. Curtis.
Dr. Alexander turned his camera on the raw materials that Dr. Carver used in his work. We see “the red clay of Alabama, the bales of cotton, the saw mill with great piles of saw dust.” Also included are shots of a Tuskegee Institute football game, along with a show put on by the school’s marching band and majorettes, sporting satin uniforms of crimson and gold.
This film was not Dr. Alexander’s only contribution to the preservation of history. In 1987 he began an oral history project documenting social change in western Michigan. This collection, consisting of 150 hours of recordings, may be found at the Kalamazoo Public Library. Dr. Alexander also published several volumes, including an autobiography, transcripts of his oral history project, and a book based on interviews with other African-American physicians.
UPDATE: In December 2019, Dr. Alexander’s film was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, under the title George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute. The National Film Registry’s mission is to showcase “the range and diversity of American film heritage to increase awareness for its preservation.” The National Film Preservation Board (NFPB) adds twenty-five films to the registry each year and the complete list of titles may be accessed on the NFPB website.