Reverend Solomon Sir Jones Films
Rev. Solomon Sir Jones, 16mm, 1924-28
Preserved by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution and the Beinecke Library, Yale University
Added to National Film Registry: 2016
Essay by Martin L. Johnson
Solomon Sir Jones was a church builder, a businessman, a newspaper editor, a community leader, and, as the Kansas City Sun called him in 1917, a “mystifying wonder, a biblical encyclopedia, and a soul-stirring revivalist.” For all these titles, however, Jones was never called a filmmaker.
This began to change in 2009, when Yale University purchased 29 reels of 16mm film shot by Jones in the late 1920s. Jones’s films were sold by Currie Ballard, a self-made historian in Oklahoma who acquired the reels, along with Jones’s projector and screen, from an antiques dealer in the state. The films held by Yale were all made by Jones for public exhibition in churches, civic halls, and schools, all places that received Jones as a preacher and travel lecturer prepared to share distant and local views with his audiences.
But Jones was not a typical traveling filmmaker, seeking to capitalize on a new technology—small-gauge film—by shooting and showing films everywhere he visited. While there’s no evidence that he received any professional training, Jones was not an amateur either. He made films with a public purpose, and there’s little evidence that he saw his work as a mere pastime. Going beyond merely capturing African American life in the 1920s, Jones’s films provide a sustained and intimate view of the people who built and sustained institutions of black life in Oklahoma.
Jones knew Oklahoma well because he had lived there for most of his life. Born on August 20, 1869, in Mason, Tennessee, a small town forty miles northeast of Memphis, Jones was educated in the city, attending the Howe Baptist Institute. At the age of twenty, Jones volunteered to go to Oklahoma Territory as a missionary from the American Baptist Home Missionary Society. Arriving in Guthrie the year of the Oklahoma Land Run, Jones spent the next several decades building black institutions, establishing churches, newspapers, and businesses, and support the activities of schools and hospitals. Jones also remained active in church politics, holding leadership roles in the National Baptist Convention of America, one of the largest African American denominations in the United States, for many years.
Jones was a fierce defender of black institutions, one of many African American leaders in Oklahoma who supported what came to be called “All-Black towns,” municipalities occupied and governed by black settlers. By the 1920s, his stature was such that when the Madam CJ Walker Company, a leading black-owned cosmetics company, launched a popularity contest to send four religious leaders to Europe and the Middle East, Jones could draw on his state and national reputation to received the most votes of anyone in the Midwest. Thousands of people, mostly women, sent in voting coupons clipped off of boxes of hair and beauty products, all in support of sending Jones on a three-month trip across the Atlantic Ocean.
In late October 1924, Jones, now 55, applied for a passport, noting on the form that this would be his first trip outside the United States. Later that same year, Jones acquired a Bell & Howell Filmo camera, one of the first cameras to use small-gauge 16mm film, which had only been introduced a year earlier. In early 1925, Jones embarked on his trip to Europe, visiting cities in England and France before traveling to Jerusalem. With this footage, Jones assembled a film and lecture program, which he delivered to churches across Oklahoma and other states. By this point, Jones had decades of experience as a traveling preacher, but now he added motion pictures to his repertoire, filming and screening local people and places so audience members could see themselves, and the institutions to which they belonged, in church.
For the next four years, Jones filmed throughout the region, documenting communities and institutions that he was intimately familiar with, and, in many cases, helped develop. Instead of intertitles, commonly used in silent-era nonfiction filmmaking to identify and describe what is about to appear on the screen, Jones used a pushpin letter board, taking care to identify the names, dates, and locations of the places he filmed. In effect, Jones’s films of Oklahoma serve as a visual commemoration of the thirty-five years he spent advocating for African American people and institutions in Oklahoma.
We see this particularly clearly in the other significant collection of Jones’s films, nine reels donated to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2011 by Naomi Long Madgett, whose family knew Jones in the 1920s. For example, in a series of shots of a family identified as Deacon and Mrs. M.C. Brown, Jones uses the letter board to show the family’s first farm, the family working on their own land, their second house, and, then, a series of shots of oil wells suggesting that the family was able to profit from a fortunate discovery. In the final shots of the sequence, we see both a school on the family’s now-former farm, and their new house in town. In this sequence, we see a narrative of racial uplift and progress that Jones emphasizes again and again in these films and, from what can be gathered from his commentary and sermons reprinted in local newspapers, in his public speech.
While some amateur films and home movies reveal the filmmaker’s distinctive visual style, or their capacity to place before the camera’s lens particularly compelling scenes, these are the exception. Instead, home movies attract us because they draw us into worlds in which we are a stranger, but everyone who was present at the moment of the film’s production, and the many screenings afterward, was a friend. We will likely never know all of the names and stories of the people Jones filmed. Many of the buildings in his films have long been destroyed. And, in many cases, even the vibrant communities he filmed are no longer, dispersed by the malevolent forces of segregation, discrimination, and economic hardship.
What we have left is something we didn’t know we had until recently—motion pictures, taken by someone who was uniquely positioned to capture black communities in a time and place in which they were vibrant but fragile, able to look at the recent past with pride, and to document themselves for an uncertain future.
 “Come-Hear-Obey,” Kansas City Sun, January 6, 1917, 1.
Martin L. Johnson is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of Main Street Movies: The History of Local Film in the United States (Indiana, 2018).