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Popular Reactions to "Birth of a Nation": Topics in Chronicling America

The first 12-reel film, "Birth of a Nation" captivated and angered audiences with its portrayal of race. This guide provides access to material related to the "Birth of a Nation" in the Chronicling America digital collection of historic newspapers.

Introduction

"Lincoln in Ford Theater Just Before the Assassination-A Scene in 'The Birth of a Nation.'" April 26, 1915. The Day Book (Chicago, IL), Image 13. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.

When D.W. Griffith’s film "Birth of a Nation" premiered in 1915, audiences divided over its racial content. Based on the novel The Clansman, the NAACP moved to ban the movie, and one reader wrote to a newspaper that the film was so “hideously insidious…that if any nation except the Negroes were made the victim of their reflections, the house which dared to present the film would be dynamited.” However, other viewers proclaimed it a truthful masterpiece, and the film broke box office records. Read more about it!

The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America.

The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.

Timeline

March 31, 1915 New Yorkers ask Mayor to stop screening of film.
May 17, 1915 Pressure from black voters causes the Mayor of Chicago to ban screenings of the film.
December 4, 1915 An African American newspaper in Denver argues against film coming to town.
February 15, 1916 Group of ministers in Iowa passes resolution denouncing film.
March 4, 1916 Birth of a Nation banned in Ohio.
March 27, 1916 Utah newspaper praises film, writing it has depicted “authentic history… without fear or favor.”
April 28, 1916 Oregon newspaper declares the film history- making in itself and praises its depiction of “white-robed saviours of a race.”
April 30, 1916 D.C. columnist defends the film against her readers who have condemned it.
May 12, 1916 Mississippi newspaper hails film as masterpiece and criticizes scenes depicting black education as being concessions for Northern audiences.
June 16, 1917 After the state of Kansas loses its case to stop showing of the film, it plays in the state to little reaction.
December 21, 1917 Given its popularity, the film returns to South Carolina.