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Pearl Bowser Audiovisual Collection

Andrade-Watkins, Claire  Search this
Bambara, Toni Cade  Search this
Dash, Julie  Search this
Gerima, Haile  Search this
Gunn, Bill, 1934-1989  Search this
Jafa, Arthur  Search this
Jones, Robert Earl, 1904-2006  Search this
Massiah, Louis  Search this
Micheaux, Oscar, 1884-1951  Search this
Moses, Ethel  Search this
Robeson, Paul, 1898-1976  Search this
Sanchez, Sonia, 1934- (poet, reader)  Search this
Snead, James A., 1953-1989  Search this
Spence, Louise, 1945-  Search this
Tucker, Lorenzo  Search this
Bowser, Pearl, 1931-  Search this
approximately 100 Motion picture films
213 Sound cassettes (7 boxes)
Collection descriptions
Archival materials
Motion picture films
Sound cassettes
Sound cassette
Oral histories (document genres)
16mm motion picture film
Vhs (videotape format)
Harlem (New York, N.Y.)
Roanoke (Va.)
Memphis (Tenn.)
bulk 1920-2001
Biographical / Historical:
Pearl Bowser is a filmmaker, producer, author, lecturer, and highly acclaimed scholar of African American film who is recognized as an authority on the works of Oscar Micheaux, a noted writer, director, and producer of race films from 1919 to 1948.

Born Pearl Johnson on June 25, 1931, in Sugar Hill, Harlem, New York, she was named after her mother (also Pearl Johnson), a domestic worker who had been raised in a Catholic nunnery. On occasional Saturdays, the younger Pearl would accompany her mother to work in apartments in lower Manhattan, where she would assist her by folding handkerchiefs for a small allowance. After moving to a lower part of Harlem when she was about four years old, she met Harlem entrepreneur "Bumpy" Johnson, for whom she and other children in the neighborhood did odd jobs such as counting coins or attending to his ice-cream stand. Johnson, who would sometimes give the children joy rides in his Cadillac, occasionally allowed Pearl and the other children to borrow books from his extensive library, provided that they read them and submitted to a quiz.

As a child, Bowser had several racist encounters. For example, one of her white kindergarten teachers at her elementary school wore gloves in the classroom as to not touch Black pupils. She was also occasionally teased for having a gap between her teeth but felt insulated from sustained bullying because she had several older brothers who sometimes protected her. On a separate occasion, when she was about nine years old, her mother sent her on a trip from New York to the South to visit relatives. Although her mother had purchased tickets for her to be in a Pullman car, when she changed trains in Washington, DC., she was forced to ride in the car behind the engine, which left her covered in soot.

An avid reader, Pearl excelled in elementary and high school and received a scholarship to attend Brooklyn College, where she majored in biology. She supplemented her income by recording the numbers in one of Bumpy Johnson's shops. Disappointed with the quality of the education she was receiving, Bowser withdrew from Brooklyn College, eventually landing a job at CBS where she worked on a team that analyzed Nielsen ratings.

In 1955, Pearl married fellow New Yorker LeRoy Bowser. By the mid-1960s, although Pearl and LeRoy Bowser had separate interests, they both were working simultaneously in the civil rights movement. While LeRoy was active in Brooklyn CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) and went to the South in the summer to teach for what was the beginning of HeadStart, Pearl, along with other production activists, took to the streets documenting African American culture and issues—working to bring these films to schools. Additionally, Bowser wanted to write a cookbook to earn funds for Brooklyn's CORE organization. She was approached by David Davis, the editor of Tuesday Magazine. Tuesday had distribution in the Herald Tribune across the country as a Sunday supplement. As the urban-world magazine exploded in Black communities, "Joan" Bowser's two-page pictorials on Southern cooking with a set of recipes became very popular in the five years she wrote them. Bowser retained copyrights to the articles, and easily completed her cookbook a short time later.

Bowser's colleague at ABC, Charles Hobson, found a used book written by Peter Noble about Black films and Oscar Micheaux. The volume was slim and contained what little information contained in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) files. Hobson and his colleagues wanted to write a book about the topic, and they assigned Bowser to begin the research. As part of the project, Bowser went to California to interview actors who may have been in early Black films or may have worked with Micheaux. What she learned began her intensive scholarship into Micheaux and his fellow filmmakers.

In 1971, she organized her first film festival, the Black Film History Series. In 1979, she organized the nation's first American women's film festival in New York City. She also presented a major retrospective, Independent Black American Cinema 1920-1980, which toured the country during 1981 and 1982. She also directed the Journey Across Three Continents film and lecture series, which toured the country from 1983-1985. Bowser also served as president of the prestigious Flaherty Film Seminar in 1987. In 1989, she, alongside Grant Munro, programmed the 35th Flaherty Film Seminar, which featured films such as Finzan, Zajota and the Boogie Spirit, Daughters of the Dust, and many more. She has also been a judge at the world-renown Pan-African Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (FESCPACO) in Burkina Faso (formerly known as Upper Volta).

In the 1980s Bowser was awarded an independent artists grant by the Ford Foundation to travel west and collect oral histories from individuals in Oscar Micheaux's orbit, loosely following the route he would have travelled decades earlier. Stopping in cities such as Roanoke, Virginia; Memphis, Tennessee; and Jackson, Mississippi, she collected dozens of oral histories from actors, actresses etc. that knew Oscar Micheaux. Through this research she became an eminent figure in the Black independent film industry. Working as a programmer, she travelled around the United States and the world showing films by domestic and Black filmmakers within the Diaspora.

Despite her wealth of experience working as a programmer, it wasn't until the 1990s that Bowser made her directorial debut with the documentary film Midnight Ramble. Funded by American Experience, the film looks at African Americans and Hollywood movies from 1910 through the 1950s. In 2000, she, along with Louise Spence, co-authored Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Audiences, a book about the pioneering filmmaker. Additionally, she is founder and director of Chamba Educational Film Services, a film distribution company that specialized in distributing films by African American filmmakers. In the early 1980s, she renamed her company/collection as African Diaspora Images, a collection of historical and contemporary films documenting Black film history. She subsequently joined Third World Newsreel, where she was director of their theater department.

In 2012, Pearl Bowser donated her extensive collection of books, sound cassettes, films, film memorabilia, and papers to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.


1940 United States Federal Census; New York, New York, New York, population schedule, p. 61B, house number 1486, family 195, Pearl Bowser; 1940 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012 accessed: 10 Sept 2022); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm: m-t0627-02665

Bowser, Pearl. Pearl Bowser Oral History. Interview by Tuliza Fleming and Jennifer Lyon, July 21, 2011.
Acquired as a donation from Pearl Bowser in 2012.
Collection is open for research. Access to collection materials requires an appointment.
Filmmakers  Search this
Actors -- Interviews  Search this
Documentary films  Search this
Film festivals  Search this
African American actors  Search this
African American actresses  Search this
African diaspora  Search this
Race films  Search this
African American motion picture producers and directors  Search this
African American women authors  Search this
Meetings  Search this
Conferences  Search this
Lectures and lecturing  Search this
Amateur films  Search this
Motion picture soundtracks  Search this
Oral history  Search this
Radio broadcasts  Search this
Sound cassette
Oral histories (document genres)
16mm motion picture film
VHS (videotape format)
Pearl Bowser Collection, National Museum of African American History and Culture
See more items in:
Pearl Bowser Audiovisual Collection
Archival Repository:
National Museum of African American History and Culture

Screenplays of the African American experience / edited by Phyllis Rauch Klotman

Klotman, Phyllis Rauch Contemporary African American filmmakers and echoes of the past  Search this
Gunn, Bill 1934-1989 Ganja & Hess  Search this
Burnett, Charles 1944- Killer of sheep  Search this
Collins, Kathleen 1942-1988 Losing ground  Search this
Dash, Julie Illusions  Search this
Larkin, Alile Sharon Different image  Search this
Lane, Charles 1953- Sidewalk stories  Search this
Physical description:
265 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Motion picture plays, American  Search this
African Americans  Search this
Data Source:
Smithsonian Libraries

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