Birth of a Historian

Much of this material has been copied from Prof. Levander's web page. I have requested permission to copy and post it. I have not received that permission yet and if it is denied I will remove it promptly.

Since I was a small boy my parents steeped me in the story of my Grandfather George Robb. When I skinned my knee my mother told me, "Don't cry, Your Grandfather was shot and he didn't cry."

Its apparent to me that by today's standards my grandfather was a racist. I'm enough of a historian, however, to know better than to judge a person of the past by contemporary standards. Even so, my mother told me years ago, back in the sixties, something I regard as rather remarkable. She told me that her father had told her it was just a matter of time until America became a nation of brown people. He meant by this that it was inevitable that black and white populations would mix.

The idea of racial "miscegination" was profoundly disturbing to white racists when I was young. The "shocking" movie Guess who's coming to Dinner made about the time I was in high school was banned in many southern theaters. The movie is so tepid in its attempt to be inoffensive, as it broaches this terrible subject, it was embarrassing to watch when I finally saw it perhaps twenty years after it was first released.

My Grandfather must have had conflicting views on race. As a small boy in rural Kansas he was steeped in Civil War lore. He knew and admired an escaped slave. His own father, a solid Republican, was a "democrat" in the truest sense of the word, treating all others as his equal.

On the other hand when my family hosted an Ethiopian Student for a year in 1968 my Grandfather chided my mother for taking our guest to with us to visit her sister's home. How presumptuous of us to bring a black kid to their house. Didn't we know it could have caused my Uncle Tom, (that really is his name) to have been embarrassed before his corporate colleagues? My mother was taken aback.

And yet the most salient fact of my Grandfather's life was that he won a Congressional Medal of Honor in WW1 as an officer in an all black regiment raised on the streets of Harlem, New York. How does this square with his views?

When my Grandfather volunteered to serve in the AEF he was a thirty year old school principal. He disapproved of the war. He had told me when I was young that the biggest mistake of his life was voting for Woodrow Wilson because Wilson had violated his promise to keep America out of war. Apparently, Wilson was the only Democrat he ever voted for. Why he would volunteer at that age was always perplexing but my Aunt's comment was probably offers the best explanation. It was something like this: Hell, with his interest in history and the Civil War there was no way he would miss out on being a part of the history being born on the fields of France.

My Grandfather had gotten his masters degree at Columbia University. Yesterday, June 8th, 2001 I finished reading a book on Reconstruction by Eric Fonor also of that University. On the last page Foner mentions that our current inaccurate views of that time were largely shaped by the faculty of Columbia from 1910 to 1920. That caught my attention because that is exactly when my Grandfather attended Columbia. I immediately looked up Dr. Fonor's email and sent him a request for information.

My mother also once asked her father if he was nervous when he went out on patrol with his black troops. He asked her rhetorically, "What do you think?" As a student of the Civil War, sympathetic to the plight of the slave but as a man trained that the blacks in the Reconstruction South were depraved I can only imagine my Grandfather's ambivalence. The kindly old ex slave he knew probably was a world apart from the cocky young men mustered on Harlem's streets. And yet when the American Army, in its disdain for blacks, assigned the 369th Infantry to the French Army because it had no similar prejudice my Grandfather dutifully did his job and won a Congressional Medal for his trouble.

As I'm writing this my adopted home, Duluth, is commemorating an infamous post WW1 lynching that took place here in 1920. The view of black Americans as animals has a long history. It lived in Duluth 80 years ago. Even thirty years ago a kid at my high school told me in all seriousness that miscegenation was wrong because the offspring of black/white unions would be mutants. Thank God my children grew up watching Bill Cosby rather than that staple of my television watching, Step n Fetchit.

A number of Duluthians are currently pondering how Duluth could possiblly have had a lynching. We were so far North. It was a shock even then so much so that it led Roy Wilkins to a career fighting "Jim Crow" in the courts. that career culminated in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education. That led to the desegregation of my elementary school

I'm currently trying to check out the reception of the white, racist, propaganda movie "Birth of a Nation" when it got to Duluth. It was released in 1915 the same year my Grandfather wrote his master's thesis at Columbia. That colleges history faculty had verified the accuracy of the Reconstruction myth. Woodrow Wilson screened the movie in the White House and proclaimed it to be an honest portrayal. 

Considering all this why shouldn't the population of Duluth hang three rapists?  If they were anything like D. W. Griffith's white actors in blackface, imitating black sex maniacs, obsessed with white women...well, its a good thing the community sent a strong message to the few blacks in town. Too bad the rape never took place.

So, I'm currently trying to find out how Birth of a Nation was received when it got to Duluth. Until I can report back here is some information on that subject copied from another web page without permission. 

(I visited New York City in June of 2002 and did more research. A week later I began an email exchange with an author who was writing a history of the 369th. Here is that email exchange)





In D.W. Griffith's masterpiece, two families--the Stonemans from the North and the Camerons from the South--experience the Civil War and Reconstruction. Through these families' stories, Griffith addresses the devastation wrought by the Civil War (especially in the South) and the social disruptions caused by Reconstruction. Griffith adapted the film from a propaganda piece about the Ku Klux Klan, The Clansman, written by Thomas Dixon. Griffith, a Southerner and the son of a Confederate War cavalry officer who returned from the war a broken man only to "suffer the disgrace of Reconstruction," blamed Reconstructionists and Southern blacks for his own misfortunes. This film reflects that resentment by depicting radical Republicans and "uppity" African-Americans as the cause of all social, political, and economic problems since the Civil War.


When Griffith released the film in 1915, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (or NAACP) and other groups protested; the NAACP published a 47-page pamphlet titled "Fighting a Vicious Film: Protest Against The Birth of a Nation," in which they referred to the film as "three miles of filth." W. E. B. Du Bois published scathing reviews in The Crisis, spurring a heated debate among the National Board of Censorship of Motion Pictures as to whether the film should be shown in New York. However, President and former history professor Woodrow Wilson viewed the film at the White House and proclaimed it not only historically accurate, but like "history writ with lightning." Like Woodrow Wilson, many whites felt it a truthful and accurate portrayal of racial politics, so much so that they flocked to join the rejuvenated Ku Klux Klan. The years after Griffith released The Birth of a Nation saw massive race riots throughout the country, peaking especially in the North in 1919; many historians lay the blame for this racial conflict on Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.


The Birth of a Nation is a complex artifact of its times. Several noteworthy themes run through the film, and it especially sheds light on the construction of categories of identity--race, class, gender, and region--during the early twentieth century. As you view the film, note the connections that Griffith makes. What are the differences between those Griffith depicts as "good blacks" and as "bad blacks"--what Griffith terms "faithful souls" and "renegades"--and what light does that shed on his construction of race and racial relations? What are "good women" and how does he illustrate his ideals (and present foils to those ideals)?


As you view the film also pay attention to the following issues: how Griffith uses threats of rape and depictions of sexuality to illustrate racial politics; the pastoral idealism of Griffith's portrayal of Antebellum plantation life; Griffith's depictions of African-Americans (note also that Griffith cast white actors and actresses to play all African-American characters who came into close contact with white actresses to avoid "racial pollution"); Griffith's contrast between antebellum and postbellum African-American behavior ("renegades" versus "faithful souls"); how Griffith contrasts Abraham Lincoln and northern patriarch, Austin Stoneman (who represents Reconstruction politician Thaddeus Stevens); Griffith's depictions of women (Northern vs. Southern, white vs. mixed-race, white vs. African-American, African-American vs. mixed-race); Griffith's depiction of the Ku Klux Klan as heroic. Also pay attention to the ways in which Griffith reflects scientific racism and views the "dangers" of racial mixture.

Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender courses in The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York

Further resources for studying The Birth of a Nation:

A page on D. W. Griffith, produced by Silents Majority, a silent film study group in California


Re-examining Birth of a Nation, by Diane MacIntyre.


David B. Pearson's Birth of a Nation Site, part of his D.W. Griffith Site at the University of New Orleans.


The Internet Movie Database's brief biography of D. W. Griffith


A brief discussion of D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation & the NAACP.


The Lillian Gish Homepage.