Our Voices for Feb. 2, 2013

A collection of movies and film shorts featuring Louisiana-born black entertainers and other national stars from the early 1900s through the civil rights era could soon be part of a Black History Month film festival tribute in New Orleans.

The New Orleans African American Museum organizers are making plans to begin showcasing in late February, some of the 300 donated films their museum received last month from a family’s collection of African-American memorabilia.

New Orleans native and Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist Dr. Lewis Brown and his wife, Shamira, a Baton Rouge native and environmental chemist, started years ago collecting films once thought lost or destroyed , they said.

Some of the films they donated include “Our Gang” episodes filmed in New Orleans. Other shows featured Mahalia Jackson, of New Orleans, Hattie McDaniel, Lena Horne and Paul Robeson.

They have found homes for the films inside libraries at historically black colleges and universities and in museums, said Lewis Brown, who converted the films to DVDs.

“I wanted to do something so people could always remember what our film legends have done for us and to help the young people realize we’ve struggled to get where we are today,” Lewis Brown said.

Brown and his wife met as undergraduate students at Dillard University, earned their graduate degrees from Southern University in the mid-1990s and moved in 1998 to Prince William County in Virginia, where they currently showcase the films in schools, libraries and museums during Black History Month, he said.

“We’re excited about putting that out for the community to see,” said Essence Edwards-Burd, museum attendant at the New Orleans African American Museum.

One of the controversial comedy shows of the 1950s, “Amos and Andy,” featured Vidalia-born actor and director Spencer Williams, who is Lewis Brown’s cousin and who contributed many of the films to Brown’s parents, he said. In 1951, the NAACP objected to the stereotypical characters portrayed in “Amos and Andy” and black people protested against the series, leading to its demise.

“Young people need to know these films do exist,” Lewis Brown said.

Similarly, Shamira Brown has family ties to 1930s actress Fredi Washington, who played in “Emperor Jones” and in “Imitation of Life,” she said.

Lewis Brown said the films are teaching tools: “I want these films to be free and available to the public.”

Edwards-Burd said many of the films laid the groundwork for today’s black superstars.

“In America, imagery is a big deal. So, any and all types of film and imagery reflecting African-American life and history should be promoted and preserved,” Edwards-Burd said. “The people starring in these films, we owe them. We have to honor them and let the world know they paved the way for the Will Smiths and Beyonces.”

Lewis Brown also created the Brown Foundation, a national nonprofit that his wife Shamira also works with, helping him in the community creating tutoring and mentoring programs, setting up feeding programs for the homeless in the Washington, D.C., area and assisting low-income families throughout the mid-South.

“No matter your surroundings or adversity, you can always make a change for the better if you want to. There is no such thing as being held down by your surroundings or being a victim,” Lewis Brown said.

Chante Dionne Warren is a freelance writer for The Advocate. She can be reached at chantewriter@hotmail.com