You can read a version of this story and more in the Summer 2021 issue of The TRiiBE Guide: Heritage Edition. Visit reshapethenarrative.com to find a copy of The TRiiBE Guide near you. Cover photo features Kannon Purnell, the 5th great-grandson of 19th century Chicago abolitionists John Jones and Mary Richardson Jones.
 

At a time when minstrel shows were all the buzz and there were limited opportunities for Black people in the theater scene, Chicago’s film and theater industry pioneers found ways to portray Black life outside of the stereotypical minstrel caricatures.

The New Pekin Theater, Count of no-account, date unknown, Source: Historic Programs Digital Collection, Special Collections

1) The Pekin Theatre

A.k.a., the “temple of music,” was founded in 1905 by saloon owner and policy king Robert T. Motts. It was the first Black-owned theater in Chicago and one of the first to feature Black performers. The Pekin was one of few venues for entertainment available to Black people in Chicago. It was the place to see jazz, theater, and vaudeville acts. Successful shows at the Pekin include The Man from ‘Bam, The Mayor of Dixie, and The Husband. Motts ran Pekin until he died in 1911.

2) Gertie Brown

An actress and vaudeville performer born in Ohio in 1878, Brown was a part of the Rag Time Four performers. She performed in vaudeville and minstrel shows in Chicago. She was also a regular performer at the Pekin Theatre. In 2017, a film clip was discovered from the silent film “Something Good – Negro Kiss,” which featured Brown and co-star Saint Suttle kissing passionately. It was filmed in Chicago in 1898. It is said to be the first example of on-screen intimacy between two Black people. The film was added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2018.

3) Foster Photoplay Company

The nation’s first Black film production company was founded in Chicago in 1910 by William Foster, a newspaperman, vaudeville press agent, and theatrical manager. He moved to Chicago and soon became the Pekin’s Theatre’s business rep. Foster had a desire to show the depth and humanity of Black people in film, something that was missing in films by white filmmakers. He debuted his first short, a two-reel comedy called the Railroad Porter, in 1912.

A lobby card for the 1921 silent film 'The Gunsaulus Mystery', the poster features Oscar Micheaux who was the writer and director of the film, he is regarded as the first major African-American filmmaker, the film belongs to a genre called race films which were produced for all-black audiences, 1921. From the New York Public Library. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).

4) Oscar Micheaux

A film pioneer, independent filmmaker, producer, and director who has more than 40 feature films under his belt, he worked as Pullman Porter before starting his film career. He also worked in Chicago stockyards and steel mills. His first feature, “The Homesteader,” debuted in 1919. He was inspired by Chicago’s Black Metropolis and in his films, he showed Black people fully human — a pivot from how Black people were portrayed in films by white filmmakers at the time.

LOS ANGELES - 1927: Actor and Comedian Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) prepares to fly to new york for an NAACP benefit in 1927 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

5) Lincoln Perry (Stepin Fetchit)

An actor and tap dancer best known for his controversial role as Stepin Fetchit, he was the first Black movie star and the first Black performer to be named in a movie’s credits and given a studio contract with Fox Film Corporation. He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame under the name Stepin Fetchit.

Perry was an entertainment critic for the Chicago Defender. His column was first called “Lincoln Perry Writes” and was later renamed “Lincoln Perry’s Letter.” Perry achieved significant success in film and got his big break in 1927 in the silent film, In Old Kentucky. He lived in public housing in the 1970s, and his neighbors asked the Chicago Housing Authority to name the building after him. In 1979, the Bronzeville housing project became the Lincoln Perry Apartments.

is a multimedia producer for The TRiiBE.