Thursday, July 21, 2016

100 Years ago The Birth of a Nation "took Salem by Storm"

100 years ago this month The Birth of a Nation played at the Grand Opera House. It had played Portland in August 1915, but didn't come to Salem until July 1916.

Salemites loved it.

Three years later, in 1919 George Putnam bought the Capital Journal, and with strong editorial leadership, he changed the narrative in the paper and partially changed it in Oregon politics more widely.

Over at Mission Mill they're starting a "History in the News" series. This month they'll be talking about the Conventions.
This year’s national party conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia promise to provoke lively debates and counter-protests, but what do they have to do with Oregon? How might Oregonians influence the direction of national politics now, and how have they done so in the past? From Tom McCall’s and Mark Hatfield’s moderating influence on the Republican Party to Jeff Merkley’s early endorsement of Bernie Sanders, Oregonians have often played important roles in pushing both parties in new directions. The Willamette Heritage Center’s inaugural History in the News program will examine the relationship between Oregonians and the national political parties, focusing on how the state’s citizens and politicians have shifted the tone, content, and course of American politics.
The series has great promise and will be very interesting to watch. It looks like this installment will focus on fairly recent history of the late 20th and early 21st century.

There are other periods they could have chosen also. A great subtext of this election cycle - as has perhaps become a commonplace now, one of the nominees strengths is turning subtext into text - is a politics of white nationalism. That was a message that resonated 100 years ago this month. Within a few years, things at least partially changed. A man who became a Salemite then played an important role in checking one strand of popular white nationalism in the early 1920s.

Half-page ad, July 22nd, 1916
For about a week half-page ads ran, some horizontal, some vertical. You can see the proportion of space devoted to other films and theaters.

Press release blurbage - July 22nd, 1916
The paper published what is almost certainly a press release furnished by the advance publicity people:
The Slave Problem - The Birth of A Nation Covers It All

The slave trade in America and slavery as it existed prior to the war is exemplified in "The Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith's pictorial and musical elaboration of Thomas Dixon's "The Clansman," and "The Leopard's Spot."

This phase of political conditions is traced strikingly from the importation of the first slaves to the troubles that grew out of their freedom and consequent enfranchisement and subsequent tribulations of the south under carpetbag rule.

As a sort of prologue to the drama, the arrival of the first "cargo" of slaves is presented with historic fidelity. From this the scene changes to ante bellum days, depicting the condition of the negro in the south at that time. Then comes the turmoil of war, and. finally, the rule of black over white with a mulatto lieutenant governor in the capital of South Carolina and the Ku Klux Klan riding through the country-side to rescue their women and preserve their traditions.

Lincoln signing tho emancipation proclamation is a favorite among the 5,000 odd scenes of the mighty spectacle.

See "The Birth of a Nation" when it appears here at the Grand theatre Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, July 24, 25 and 26, with the negro problem in America in mind, as well as the manifold other particular features, and you will marvel at what you behold.

Music lovers are as pleased with this presentation as they would be over a production of grand opera, as its score of material music, patriotic airs and folk songs is played by a symphony orchestra, especially trained and carried for this purpose, and which greatly enhances the emotional power of the splendid work.
Editorial, July 28th, 1916
After it opened, the paper editorialized very favorably:
The Birth of a Nation took Salem by storm, and the Grand was crowded at every performance. It could have played here a couple of days more to packed houses just as well, and perhaps even longer for many who were anxious to see it were turned away at every performance. The pictures are certainly wonderful, especially those showing the Ku klux at work. The battle scenes too were great and seemingly impossible to stage for the original pictures. In some respects, though, it was a disappointment. One of these, and the most disappointing too, was .the part portraying Lincoln. It is a pity that some actor could not have been selected for this part who had a better conception of the grand character, its rugged gentleness, its great heartedness and above all its supreme humanness. The actor made Lincoln a silent, woebegone person, solemn to deadliness and acting as though he was attending the funeral of his best friend, instead of presenting the frank and pleasing countenance the brave, patient face, smiling often even in the midst of his burdens, and the kindly word and pleasant greeting that were so natural to him. Another disappointing feature was that the heroines were chits of girls with expressionless putty faces, and they never once during the whole performance showed the least evidence of the art histrionic. However bad acting while detracting from the pleasure of the play, could not alter the fact that its pictures were superb, thrilling and these with as many adverbial prefixes as you please.
In 1919 George Putnam sold his Medford paper and purchased the Capital Journal. According to journalist and historian Floyd McKay,
he was a new editor in the capital city when the Ku Klux Klan began efforts to dominate Oregon politics. Putnam immediately became the state’s strongest newspaper opposition, ridiculing the secret society and its “senseless and silly public appearances in nightgown regalia.” His ridicule extended to fellow editors, particularly in Portland, for timidity in facing the KKK.
Half-page ad for a book serialization, July 1, 1922:
"a distinct menace to the American people"
In local elections he crossed party lines and put "country before party":
A lifelong Democrat, Putnam supported Republican Governor Ben W. Olcott, who the Klan attacked in the 1922 Republican primary. Putnam overcame physical threats and an attempted advertising boycott when he continued to attack the KKK.
In addition to the editorials he wrote, Putnam sponsored the serialization of Henry Fry's 1922 book, The Modern Ku Klux Klan, about the "monstrosity....[of] group hatred and group prejudice."

It was a pretty substantial campaign Putnam wrought.

Even thought it was energetic, it wasn't enough. Statewide, Olcott didn't win and in the fall of 1922 Walter Pierce was elected governor:
Although his 1922 run for governor was rooted in issues of public power, passing a state income tax, and reforestation, Pierce revealed his life-long nativism—tacitly supporting the Klan and backing the anti-Catholic Compulsory School Bill, a measure aimed directly at parochial schools. Oregon's largely homogenous ethnic and religious voters approved the measure, but the Oregon Supreme Court declared the it unconstitutional, a decision upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court (Pierce vs. Society of Sisters, 1925). Pierce also supported the Alien Property Act, a 1923 law directed at immigrant Japanese in Portland and the Hood River Valley, prohibiting aliens from owning or leasing land.
In Pierce's combination of nativism, populism, and progressivism it sure looks like there are some meaningful historical rhymes and echoes in there with our current situation. He went on to become a New Deal Democrat but also
held fast to his nativist beliefs, supporting the incarceration of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor and campaigning in 1944 and 1945 against the return of Japanese citizens and aliens to their homes
History doesn't repeat exactly, of course, and it's often tempting to draw over-simple parallels. But even the Washington Post is writing about the history of "America First" and Charles Lindbergh's nativism from the 1930s.

Salem may be too homogeneous for a real history of redlining (does anyone know of any local scholarship on this?), but there very real ways attitudes on race and the built city intersect. It is possible, in fact, that our current debate on the size of a new police station is at least partially informed by Salem's increasing diversity and fears of change.

In January, 1903, "Chinatown has been Condemned" and many of the commercial buildings we celebrate today in our downtown Historic District replaced over a decade or two the dwellings and small district that had been created.

The Book Bin is in a structure built by Percy Willis, son of one of General Forrests' cavalry field officers in the Confederate army. Forrest was an early leader in the first, Reconstruction-era, instance of the Klan.

And "Frank Tanaka's Tokio Sukiyaki House Closes in 1942"

There's a history here, not just of policy and culture, the realm of ideas, but also of urban form and buildings.

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