Oscar Micheaux was one of the most prolific filmmakers of the first half of the twentieth century. Between 1919 and 1948, he wrote, directed, and produced over 40 “race films” featuring black actors and made for black audiences. African-American directors and producers, closed off from the support and resources of large studios, were by necessity independent; and Micheaux was one of the few who were active during the early twentieth century.
While Micheaux is best remembered for his work as a filmmaker, he had already led a full life by the time he began producing movies: he shined shoes, worked as a Pullman porter, settled a homestead, and had a disastrous marriage. All of these experiences are chronicled in his autobiographical novel, The Conquest. Micheaux published this book anonymously, in 1913, and used thinly veiled pseudonyms for the real people and places that inspired the novel. In the opening chapter, the narrator introduces himself as Oscar Devereaux, explaining that while his real name is not Devereaux, “it is a peculiar name that ends with an ‘eaux.’”
The novel begins when Devereaux is a child in southern Illinois, and follows him as he leaves home and attempts to find work. After shining shoes in a barbershop for several months, Devereaux secures work as a porter at the “P___n Company.” The chapters that follow offer an illuminating account of life as a Pullman porter, including a candid depiction of the system through which porters and conductors stole money from the company. Through Devereaux, Micheaux argues that the company’s mistreatment of its employees left them no choice but to steal. He describes a situation in which “thousands of black porters continue to give their services in return for starvation wages and are compelled to graft the company and the people for a living.” (Eventually, the Pullman porters formed a union in order to fight back against their meager salaries. More information about the efforts of this union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, can be found in the Newberry’s current exhibition, Civil War to Civil Rights.)
In 1904 Micheaux left the Pullman Company in order to claim a homestead in South Dakota. This experience is also chronicled in The Conquest. Micheaux details the work of establishing and farming a homestead, as well as the politics and various goings-on of several small South Dakota towns.
In addition to describing his various personal experiences, Micheaux’s proxy narrator weighs in on contemporary debates within the African-American community. At many points throughout the novel, Devereaux expounds on the possibility of racial uplift through hard work, and on his conviction that “there should be no reason why the American negro allow obvious prejudice to prevent his taking advantage of the opportunities that surround him.” Fittingly, The Conquest is dedicated to Booker T. Washington, whose ideas on how to achieve racial progress echo in Devereaux’s words.
With the publication of this novel in 1913, Micheaux abandoned his life as a homesteader and began his career as an author and filmmaker. Although he focused on making movies, Micheaux went on to write six additional novels.
By Margaret Hanson, General Collections Library Assistant