On February 8th, the PBS series American Masters aired a brand-new two-hour documentary on Marian Anderson called “Marian Anderson: The Whole World in Her Hands.” The production staff reviewed over 600 photographs, 400 documents and 18 audio recordings from Penn Libraries Marian Anderson Collection. The result is a visually and aurally rich sotribute to one of Philadelphia’s greatest artist.
Another Penn Libraries collection which is featured prominently in the documentary is the University Archives and Records Center‘s Alexander Family Papers. Most of the film footage of Europe and some of the footage of African American life used in the documentary came from the Alexander family’s home movies. Raymond Pace Alexander (1897–1974) and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander (1898–1989) are both Penn trail blazers. Both held degrees from Penn. Sadie’s 1922 PhD was the first for an African American woman at Penn and the first in the United States for an African American in the field of economics. With Wharton and Harvard Law degrees, Raymond established a legal practice in Philadelphia to serve African American and underrepresented communities. Sadie joined the firm after getting her law degree from Penn. They became well known for their work, particularly their civil rights cases fighting discrimination in the Philadelphia area. Raymond later became a member of Philadelphia City Council and the first African American to serve on the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Sadie served on several boards and two Presidential Commissions.
The University Archives’ Alexander Family Papers document the professional as well personal lives of Raymond and Sadie Alexander as well as some of their family members. Until relatively recently one portion of the collection was inaccessible – the home movies. There are over a hundred 16mm black and white and color films in the collection dating from 1930 to 1961. They document the private as well as public life of the Alexanders and offer a rare motion picture glimpse into the world of an upper middle class Philadelphia African American family. Beginning in 2018 the University Archives began to digitize some of the films.
The ready availability of amateur or home movie cameras in the United States began in the 1920s. In 1923 Kodak brought to market the CINE-KODAK Motion Picture Camera and created an infrastructure across the country to process the film – 16mm non-flammable safety film (cellulose acetate). Other companies, such as Bell & Howell, quickly followed with cameras of their own that could use Kodak’s 16mm film. Sometime in the late 1920s the Alexanders purchased a motion picture camera, most likely a Bell & Howell Filmo camera.
The oldest films in the collection date from 1930. There is footage of the 1930 meeting at Howard University of the National Bar Association (founded in part by the Alexanders in 1925 when African Americans were denied membership in the American Bar Association).
Another 1930 meeting captured is the National Urban League in Buffalo. In this footage, Thurgood Marshall is clearly visible:
The Elk’s Oratorical Scholarship given to 16-year-old Jean Hargrove of Atlanta is documented with scenes from their I.B.F.O.E.’s national convention in Atlantic City in August 1932.
Other group events found in the collection are the 1932 Republican National Convention in Chicago and what is likely a 1940s Grand Boulé of the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity which features some African dancers.
The films offer a rare glimpse into the social and family life of upper middle class African Americans. Children making contributions to a nursery school lunch fund in the early 1940s and a mixed group of children riding elephants, perhaps at the Philadelphia Zoo, show the public world children lived in. There are also scenes of the private world of the Alexander family with children riding bicycles (in color), cutting birthday cakes and a 1930s birthday party for Raymond’s father Hillyard Alexander (who was enslaved at birth in Virginia).
The world African Americans were allowed to occupy in the resort community of Atlantic City is also documented in several scenes of people on segregated beaches.
The footage that appeared prominently in the Marian Anderson documentary was from the trips Raymond and Sadie took to Europe in 1930 and 1931. On their first trip was to France, Germany and England. When they were in France they visited Sadie’s uncle, the artist Henry Ossawa Tanner.
They also saw Mary Church Terrell, Clarence Cameron White, and Joel Augustus Rogers. When they were in London they witnessed a visit of Mahatma Gandhi and members Indian National Congress members. Footage of both stops on their tour were used in the documentary. Their trip included attendance at the 1930 performance of the Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany. The Alexanders likely hired a professional film editor to put together the trip’s footage because there are intertitles or tile cards, common to silent films, identifying locations and sometimes people in the films.
In 1931 the Alexanders visited Germany and the Soviet Union. They were invited to attend a session of a Soviet court and allowed to film it. Secret footage Raymond took of a Youth Day Celebration in Moscow was used in the Anderson documentary.
Several of the Alexanders’ trips to the Caribbean in the 1930s and 40s are found in the collection. These provide a glimpse at communities in Haiti, Santo Domingo, St. Thomas, St. Croix, Jamaica and Martinique.
The collection even includes scenes (in color) of a visit by the Alexander family to Marian Anderson’s home in Danbury, CT in the late 1940s or early 1950s.
The Alexander Family Papers are available to the public and Penn community for research and viewing by appointment at the University Archives. The finding aids for the collections can be found as follows: for Raymond Pace Alexander, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander, Sadie T.M. and Raymond P. Sadie Alexander joint papers, Elizabeth Mossell Anderson, and Virginia Margaret Alexander. Selected photographs from the collection can also be found on-line in the University Archives’ Digital Image Collection and audio selections from the collection that have been digitized can likewise be found on-line.