Arguably their most popular film, Trooper of Company K, made in 1917, starred Noble Johnson, as well as former members of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalries. The film, which highlighted Americans fighting with Mexican troops, was even distributed in white theatres. The Lincoln company also recognized black author Oscar Micheaux’s talent and contacted him to make his novel The Homesteader into a film in 1918.
Montague has a scrapbook detailing the company’s beginning and evolution that includes stills from its posters as well as the company’s letterhead. There are also some film reels and actual posters in the collection from this epic part of black film history.
“That’s the only one known to mankind,” Merrill exclaimed to theGrio in reference to the scrapbook. Beyond its unique status, however, Merrill (who is also a consultant to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture) sees greater value. Drawing attention to the fact that Lincoln Pictures was founded in the same year The Birth of A Nation was released, Merrill notes that the academic value of these artifacts in expanding our knowledge of the early development of the film industry in this country because they “[document] a very obscure and pioneering film company.”
Merrill supports what the American Arts Trust is attempting to do — saving the Montague Collection intact — and encourages the general public to donate money to its efforts. “This should not be the kind of story that ends in tragedy,” he said of the possibility of ABKCO selling off the collection piece by piece. The danger in the elements of the Montague Collection becoming disbursed through a sale is that the pieces will likely end up with collectors who will not properly preserve priceless pieces of black history that cannot be replaced. Only institutions with expertise and dedicated resources can properly protect these relics. The intervention of such institutions to save the collection is what Merrill hopes will occur.
“This can be a groundbreaking opportunity for us to set a precedence on what will happen to other collections in the country,” Merrill continued. “There are other private collections of merit that will come forth and we will be able to refer back to the precedent that we set with how the Montague Collection was saved.” That is, if it is saved. The American Arts Trust hopes to set this precedent.
Schultz and Hahn, the Trust founders, didn’t set out to establish precedents, but they did set out to support and preserve American arts and crafts. “Both David and I have spent our entire professional lives involved with the arts in one fashion or another and we decided to pool our interests, our experiences, our contacts and our passions on behalf of various American arts and crafts,” Schultz told theGrio about their aims.
Crediting David’s wife for noticing one of the early stories on Montague and bringing it to their attention, Schultz says, “She was correct in understanding that it really fits squarely within our mandate. Basically, what we’re trying to do within the Trust is to promote American arts and crafts and draw greater attention to them.”
Compelled by the urgency of The Montague Collection’s need, Schultz said he and Hahn ignored the fact that they “weren’t ready to go public.” It was such a significant collection that they could not wait. “When we read the story, it had such resonance for us that we reached out to the trustees and to the Merrills [of the profession] and we’ve kind of been off to the races since then,” Schultz says.
“It is our belief that a nation on the rise collects and respects the art of its people, and nations on the decline tend to throw it out,” chimed in an impassioned Hahn. “The twentieth century was the jazz century and the American century,” he continued, touching upon the significance of The Montague Collection, “and, now, we’re in the twenty-first century and we don’t want to lose the age that we made.”
For both men, Montague himself is such a motivating figure. “His dream is to see the collection remain intact, be passed on to the American people as his gift and be made widely available for educational and scholarly purposes as well as being displayed for the enjoyment and education of the general public. That’s the kind of thing that really gets our attention,” says Hahn.
Speaking to Steve Bornfeld of the Las Vegas Review-Journal last summer, Montague, now in his early 80s, was very specific about the legacy he especially wanted to give to black youth through his collection. “I wanted to give them something more powerful than guns and turntables,” he said. “I wanted to give them their B.H.D.s., their black history degrees.”
Last year, that dream seemed unattainable. But, this year, it might remain alive. It will take donors and collectors making a concerted effort to save the Montague Collection in the mere days that are left, while there is still time.
Ronda Racha Penrice is the author of African American History For Dummies. She is also editor of UPTOWN Atlanta. Follow her on Twitter at @rondaracha.