Editor's note: Former Rapid City Journal reporter Steve Miller shares biweekly stories of the people and places that make the western South Dakota region unique.
Troy Sundquist and I tramped through knee-high grass to get to the old homestead site, where a ramshackle cabin and barn remain.
It is hard to fathom that it was here, in south-central South Dakota, that a young black farmer began a journey that would help pave the way for future African-American film stars and producers such as Paul Robeson, Georg Stanford Brown, James Earl Jones and Spike Lee.
Sundquist, co-owner of the Gray House Motel in Gregory, drove me to the site southeast of town, where 21-year-old Oscar Micheaux homesteaded in 1905. All that's left is an old cabin, built as a replica for Micheaux's original sod house, and a small barn.
Micheaux came to Gregory County after working as a railroad porter. He didn't know a thing about farming, but he learned, increasing his land holdings from 160 acres to 1,000 acres.
Micheaux apparently didn't face the overt racism that other black immigrants did elsewhere in South Dakota, especially where the Ku Klux Klan was active, says Jerry Wilske, director of the Oscar Micheaux Center in Gregory.
A bright, well-read, personable young man, Micheaux was eventually well-accepted in the area, Wilske said. He attended dances, boxed and kept learning more about farming.
Someone encouraged him to write about his life.
Micheaux wrote his first novel, "The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer," while still living in South Dakota. The novel is centered on Micheaux's homesteading efforts. Wilske isn't sure whether Micheaux began writing while he was at this first homestead site.
Then, a brutal drought hit the Plains, from 1909-1911, helping drive Micheaux and others out. He moved to Sioux City in 1913, bought a bookstore and continued writing, eventually producing seven novels.
He later met a black actor, Noble Johnson, who owned a small film company in Omaha. Johnson suggested that he film Micheaux's third novel, "The Homesteader," but Johnson wanted to produce it and star in it. Micheaux, however, insisted that he produce it himself and choose his own cast.
It was the first full-length feature film produced by a black filmmaker. Micheaux went on to make at least 44 films, half silent movies and half "talkies." Micheaux made films into the 1940s. He died penniless in 1951.
His movies were known as "race" films, and many were controversial. One had a kissing scene between black and white characters, which was highly controversial at the time. However, Micheaux hired only black actors, so the white character was played by an African-American.
Micheaux's movies also upset many black audiences, says Wilske, because he depicted many blacks as lazy drunkards. Micheaux tried to be an example to other blacks through hard work and perseverance.
Today, many black actors and filmmakers acknowledge Micheaux as a pioneer in their industry.
Those who have attended the annual Oscar Micheaux Festival in Gregory include actors Tim Reid ("WKRP in Cincinnati" and "That ‘70s Show") and Georg Stanford Brown ("Roots," "North and South," "Bullitt" and "Stir Crazy"), as well as film scholars such as Pearl Bowser.
The festival began in 1996. Wilske began attending in 2001 and got hooked on Micheaux.
"I simply admired Oscar for his tenacity," Wilske said. "He had a lot of discouragements."
Micheaux was not universally well-liked. For example, Wilske said, he hasn't been able to convince James Earl Jones to attend the festival. Jones' father acted in Micheaux films, and the two clashed.
Plus, Micheaux, a notorious tightwad, probably didn't pay the elder Jones much, Wilske said.
In 2005, Wilske became director of the Oscar Micheaux Center. He bought the building and an adjacent lot and began renovating the structure, which was built in 1910 to house a bank.
The center is open year-round. It includes a 90-seat theater, where two or three of Micheaux's films are shown during the festival, along with others.
Only 15 of Micheaux's films survive, but the center has DVD copies of all 15 for sale.
A producer from the TV show "So You Think You Can Dance" recently contacted the center for a copy of Micheaux's film "Swing," intending to use music from the movie as well as a clip for a dance number on the TV show.
The U.S. Postal Service also honored Micheaux by unveiling a stamp with his likeness at three ceremonies in June in New York City. Wilskie spoke at a ceremony in Brooklyn and presented a bust of Micheaux to Spike Lee.
The stamp will also be unveiled at this summer's Oscar Micheaux festival, which runs Aug. 4-7
This year's festival will feature the 1940s, with presentations on jazz, local history, World War II memorabilia, black film history (including a look at the parallels between Micheaux and Spike Lee), live jazz and a street dance.
If you go, consider driving out to the Micheaux homestead site. There's a battered table inside the old cabin. You can imagine a young man sitting there, writing and making history.
Steve Miller of Rapid City is a freelance writer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.