Who was the First African American Woman Filmmaker?

This is a great question, and an important one. 

As we know, the one who gets to tell their story is the one who writes history. We can list off the names of the many “great” male filmmakers, and the stories they told: stories about our roles in society - stories about class, race, gender, and who could love whom - were told and reinforced by the films that were funded, distributed widely, written about, and ultimately preserved and archived. Those are the films we study today. 

But try to trace the films of Black women who made films in the Jim Crow era of American history, and you will be hard pressed to find them. Almost all, other than Zora Neale Hurston’s, are lost. Scholars such as award-winning contemporary filmmaker Yvonne Welbon, and the Women’s Film Pioneer Project at Columbia University, have researched early African American women filmmakers in pursuit of the question “Who was the first?” Like most early Black filmmakers, these films are much more difficult to track down than the more mainstream films of the silent era. Since many films by African American women have been lost, scholars look for evidence of these women’s existence elsewhere - in advertisements and in newspapers, searching for any mention of Black women and their work.

Tressie Souders’ film A Woman’s Error was released in 1922 and was distributed by the Afro-American Film Exhibitors’ Company based in Kansas City, Missouri. One reference to her film, in the book Blacks in Black and White, led Welbon to research Souders in the Black press of that era. In her dissertation, “Sisters of Cinema,” Yvonne Welbon quotes The Billboard which refers proudly in their review of A Woman’s Error to “the first of its kind to be produced by a young woman of our race” and, most importantly, they see it as a “picture true to Negro life.” Any film with the title A Woman’s Error is bound to be one worth watching, and I hope it is located one day. 

Maria P. Williams

Portrait in her book My Work and Public Sentiment. (1916)

Eslanda Robeson production still

Eslanda Robeson

Wife and partner of Paul Robeson, in Borderline. (1929).
Courtesy of Yale University, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Maria P. Williams, also of Kansas City, Missouri, was mentioned as another “first” in her local paper, this time in 1923. Williams produced, distributed, and acted in her own film, The Flames of Wrath (1923). Welbon, whose research she transformed into the documentary Sisters of Cinema and an educational center, also called Sisters In Cinema, discovered a reference to William’s film on the first page of the Norfolk Journal and Guide which described it as a mystery drama in five reels, “written, acted and produced” entirely by people of color.

The archives of the Black press are an essential part of the record of these women, some of whom partnered with their husbands in making films for and about the Black community. Women such as author Birdie Gilmore, who is mentioned as having had her Jungle God produced by the Delsarte Film Company; Eloyce King Patrick Gist, who has received some critical attention for her work making 16mm educational religious shorts in partnership with her husband. Her films are included in the Criterion Collection’s Pioneers of African American Cinema. And Eslanda Robeson, wife of renowned singer, actor, and activist Paul Robeson.

Jennie Louise Touissant Welcome, sister to photographer James Van Der Zee, worked with her creative partner and husband Ernest Touissant Welcome, creating the Toussaint Motion Picture Exchange which filmed African American contributions to War World I from 1916 - 1918. These artists deserve their place in film history, and we can only hope that their lost films will one day soon be discovered.

The Women Film Pioneer Project (WFPP) is a digital publication and resource that advances research on the hundreds of women who worked behind the scenes during the silent film era. Always expanding, WFPP publishes original scholarship on women who worked all around the world as directors, producers, screenwriters, editors, and more.

Source: Morgan, Kyna. "Maria P. Williams." In Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2013.

Amy Harrison

Board Secretary