Spotlight On . . . Nacogdoches!

We love becoming better acquainted with Texas communities through their unique film heritage. Our Texas Film Round-Up program crisscrosses the state giving Texans the opportunity to bring out their films and videos for free digitization. As a result, TAMI provides new access to valuable materials that would have otherwise not been seen again. In our new feature series, we spotlight some of our favorite finds from Texas Film Round-Ups. First up, Nacogdoches!

As part of the Nacogdoches Film Round-Up, we partnered with the East Texas Research Center (ETRC) to preserve their film and video collection. One film in particular had a great story. Erwin DuBose served as the Assistant Principal of Nacogdoches High School in the 1960s when he oversaw a major clean-up of the building, the Chamberlain Building or ‘Old White Building,’ as it was called at that time.  Mr. DuBose found a roll of film, devoid of its metal canister, lying atop a trashcan, labeled simply “Nacogdoches 1938.”  He took the film to his office and inquired if anyone knew about it, but he never heard anything. In 1971, he boxed up the film along with his other office items during a job transition and stored the film away for decades.  In 2013, the film was re-discovered by Davy DuBose, Erwin’s son, while cleaning out a storeroom. Davy had the film digitized, and recognizing its historical value, contacted the ETRC to house this important artifact. When TAMI brought the film back to Austin, we determined it was likely a community film made by an itinerant filmmaker.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, so-called “itinerant filmmakers” traveled throughout the United States and other countries, visiting smaller cities, where they would spend several days recording scenes of daily life focused primarily on the residents. Once completed, the film was shown to the community in the local theater before the feature.

“Nacogdoches 1938” is important to moving image history for several reasons. The first is that it still exists. Luckily, Mr. DuBose chose to save it from disposal in the 1960s and then acted as a protective guardian for the following decades. Because film is impermanent and requires storage in a controlled archival environment to prevent decomposition, the stable condition of this film is also remarkable. Seventy-five years after this film was made, we were able to rescue it and allow its content to be watched by new eyes. 

The other reason this film is noteworthy is the amount of community history it captures - not only its citizens, but Main Street, businesses, factories, and schools. Some of the buildings in the film still stand, and some of the descendants of the residents in the film still live in the area.  This film truly captures the life in Nacogdoches in 1938 for certain parts of the community.

While we were at the ETRC, Linda Reynolds mentioned they were keeping old tapes that once belonged to famed politician Charlie Wilson, but she had no idea what exactly the footage contained. We eagerly took these back to Austin for digitization, and to our delight, we found several of Congressman Wilson’s campaign ad reels.  

Political ads from the past are valuable because they allow us to see how campaigns were run and what cultural values the politicians deemed important for the voters at that time in history. These advertisements are especially significant because Charlie Wilson is so well known outside of East Texas following the movie Charlie Wilson’s War (2007).

Charlie Wilson grew up in Trinity, Texas hearing about heroic efforts against the Japanese during World War II. Although Wilson was known as the “Liberal from Lufkin,” one can see in the ads that he used residual animosity towards the Japanese to gain votes in the 1992 election. Not only did he raise the threat of the Japanese taking jobs from all hard-working East Texans, Wilson also implied that his opponent’s loyalties were Japanese instead of American. By playing on the constituents’ sense of patriotism and xenophobia, Wilson successfully campaigned for votes.

The Nacogdoches Round-Up also put us in touch with Ouida Whitaker Dean, a long-time resident of East Texas who taught filmmaking at Timpson High School and was an accomplished amateur filmmaker herself. TAMI has worked extensively with Dean’s unique collection.

This particular film documents a stepping performance from fraternal or “Greek” organizations at Stephen F. Austin University, a significant find as it captures African American cultural traditions that often went undocumented at the time. Stepping or blocking is a form of percussive dance, in which the dancer uses his or her entire body as an instrument involving synchronized movement, signing, speaking, chanting, and drama.  Theories vary about how stepping began, but we do know that stepping, as we know it today, originated on college campuses among black fraternities and sororities in the 1940s. 

This video comes from the 1970s, and it is unfortunately silent, so we can only imagine the sorority sisters singing and creating rhythms at the beginning of the film. When the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity takes stage, you can see that these fraternity brothers are dancing in a counter-clockwise circle. Prevalent in African dance, the counterclockwise circular pattern seen in early step routines reflects the influence of African cultures. One can witness the mixing of very old patterns derived from slave culture and Africa with modern influences such as drill teams and rap in this video, which creates a very electrifying presentation of African American culture.