Filmmaker honors Black soldiers in World War I

On summer days in 1916, Jennie Welcome Toussaint would have seen young men in uniform marching a few blocks south of her brownstone. The 15th New York National guard would march out from the Lafayette Theater as their armory, through the theater center of Harlem.

Years before America entered World War I, they would head to the battlefields in France. They would spend more days in the trenches than any other American unit — and she would become one of the first black woman film-makers in the country and take a stand to defend them.

They were a warm and musical family — everyone played an instrument and sang. And they would paint and draw together on winter nights.

She was born here, in Lenox, in 1885, as Jane Louise Van Der Zee, and her brother James, a year younger, would become known as one of the central photographers of the Harlem Renaissance. A record of her life exists mainly in the background of her brother’s, and yet she was an artist and musician in her own right — he and his biographers often say she was as talented or more.

She and her husband, Ernest Toussaint Welcome, ran the Toussaint Conservatory of Art in Harlem and Queens for more than 40 years, and they joined the growing silent film industry as filmmakers with the Toussaint Motion Picture Exchange.

But in the beginning, Jennie and James grew up together in Lenox, the oldest of six children; their aunts ran a bakery, and their grandparents lived next door, writes Roger Birt in “A Live in American Photography,” a study of James’ work.

They were a warm and musical family — everyone played an instrument and sang. And they would paint and draw together on winter nights, writes Jim Haskins in “Picture Takin’ Man,” a biography of James based in long conversations with him.

Jennie studied at the Kellogg School of Art in Pittsfield, and by 1908 she had married Ernest Toussaint Welcome; her family were heading to New York to find work, and she and her husband moved to Harlem and opened the Toussaint Conservatory there.

Jennie painted and drew, and she and her school taught oil painting and watercolor, piano and violin, bass and reeds — she and her husband took out a full-page ad in the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis, as early as 1910.

A mural shows people dancing, listening to music, swirled in color in Harlem, N.Y. Creative Commons courtesy photo
Photo by Karin

A mural shows people dancing, listening to music, swirled in color in Harlem, N.Y. Creative Commons courtesy photo

“He was a good promoter,” James says in Picture Takin’ Man. “Anything he set his mind to, he was successful at it. … He had the finest singing voice I ever did hear. He should have sung professionally.”

Ernest, like Jennie, was an entrepreneur and an artist. They would run many businesses together — a magazine, a realty company, a photography studio.

They supported their family, as Jennie’s father died of tuberculosis in 1911, and her youngest sister and brother within the same year. James taught violin at their academy and opened his first photography studio there, and when he married and moved, Jennie opened her own.

By 1918, she and Ernest had branched into film. The young film industry was taking root in New York City, writes Paula J. Massood in Making a Promised Land: Harlem in Twentieth-Century Photography and Film. Between 1918 and 1925, she says, there were at least eight Black-owned-and-operated film production companies in Harlem.

Between 1918 and 1925, there were at least eight Black-owned-and-operated film production companies in Harlem.

Old stone buildings stand beside new glass facades in Harlem, N.Y. Creative Commons courtesy photo

Old stone buildings stand beside new glass facades in Harlem, N.Y. Creative Commons courtesy photo

This was the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance — W.E.B. DuBois was arguing passionately for the rights and minds, talents and citizenship of Black Americans, and in Harlem writing and art and music were welling up in murals and music — Langston Hughes was writing poetry; Paul Robeson starred in his first film; legends were rising in blues and jazz clubs — Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong.

Black filmmakers were rising too, Massood says. Black audiences and film critics, theatre owners and managers were protesting against demeaning characters and stereotypes in many American films; they wanted films to tell the real stories of the lives they led and could hope to lead.

The Toussaints were making newsreels, Massood says, like most of the film-makers in Harlem then. The Lafayette Theater played silent films where the 15th New York National Guard had their headquarters. Jennie would have heard them march through the streets with their brass band. She would have known families who were waiting to hear from their sons and husbands and brothers — or already knew they were not coming home.

‘She always had the house and yard full of children. She’d teach them painting and drawing and music and wouldn’t charge any fee; she was just interested in their learning.’ — James Van Der Zee

The 15th National Guard had been in France since 1916, long before America entered the war. They served as part of the French army, writes Peter N. Nelson in A More Unending Battle: the Harlem Hellfighters’ Struggle for Freedom in World War I and Equality at Home. Young men from New York and the Northeast enlisted because they were Black and American, and they were calling on their country to recognize them.

They were years ahead of most Americans. The U.S. declared war in 1917, and in the late spring 1918 American soldiers began shipping out in force. In the next few months 110,000 would die in the trenches.

And on June 8, 1918, the Toussaint studio announced in the Chicago Defender a film on African-American soldiers overseas: “Twelve stirling chapters of two full reels each,” writes Margaret Olin in Touching Photographs.

On June 8, 1918, the Toussaint studio announced in the Chicago Defender a film on African-American soldiers overseas. … A silent film of 24 reels would have run six hours long.

A silent film of 24 reels would have run six hours long — a monumental work at a time when a four-reel, hour-long feature was new and substantial; in comparison of length, Charlie Chaplin’s classic City Lights would have been an eight-reel film.

The film itself may be lost; the Library of Congress has estimated that more than 75 percent of all silent films have been.

But it was a story Jennie Toussaint Welcome worked passionately to tell. The Toussaint Pictorial Company published one million post cards of black soldiers, according to the Defender, and one of the only examples of her work on record is a World War I poster showing a black soldier in the trenches. He stands large in the foreground, carrying a rifle, and his canteen shows the National Guard’s number 15.

She continued to paint and draw and to run her school through the Depression and World War II. Ernest died in the early 1940s, and Jennie continued to run both the conservatory and his real estate business.

“She always had the house and yard full of children,” James says in Picture Takin’ Man; “She’d teach them painting and drawing and music and wouldn’t charge any fee; she was just interested in their learning.”

She died of cancer in 1956, and James closed the school after she died. She ran the school to the end of her life, he says, and she painted and drew her own work — always.

This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle in March 2019. My thanks to Lindsey Hollenbaugh and Jennifer Huberdeau.

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