Watch this fascinating long-lost documentary about black life in America


In the 1960s, the United States Information Agency (USIA) created a number of documentaries for foreign audiences about what life is like in America, one of them was The American Negro, a 25-minute film which the National Archives’ Motion Picture Preservation Lab has restored from a work print (it was never completed for unknown reasons) and digitized after receiving a reference request.

Produced and narrated by Charles Gordone, an actor and future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, the film focuses “primarily on the daily realities of black Americans. Instead of showing civil rights marches or black musicians, the film celebrates middle-class black people,” according to Smithsonian. It includes check-ins with a team of black surgeons, a social worker who loves to go bowling, college students planning a sit-in set to occur during Christmas break, an integrated high school in Indiana, and more.

In a poignant portion, a man in a barbershop in Harlem (“here only negroes live”) discusses the impact segregation has on the day-to-day activities of black people as well as the absurdity of the practice.

“I think it’s something that’s ridiculous. I think there are white people in the south, or not even in the south, anywhere, that refuse to allow the negro man or negro woman to sit in a restaurant or ride next to them in a bus or train or anything. And then, on the other hand, turns around and wants a colored woman to come into their home and cook their food and serve them their dinner after having their hands all in their food. I think somebody’s got to be crazy there.”

Also of note is just how the Archives restored the film, after they “received a mish-mash of elements” including reels of mismatched film formats and audio reels of varying qualities.

Toward the end of the film, several civil rights leaders discuss black life in America and why they still like the country, even with all the challenges they face. Men like Whitney Young, and Roy Wilkins, then the executive secretary of the NAACP are interviewed in this portion, but it’s an unnamed woman who cuts straight to the point, saying “this is my home, and though in many instances it has caused me pain, I am, first of all, an American.”

It’s an interesting movie, and it’s a minor tragedy it hasn’t been seen in so long. However, what’s more striking, watching it over 50 years after it was filmed, is just how little has changed.

David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: [email protected]

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