One of the latest additions to our collection in 2016 is the book Our Gang: A Racial History of the Little Rascals by Julia Lee. In it, Lee places the Our Gang series in its historical racial context and explores how it helped to change that context. The book is interesting and well-written, using research conducted all over the country, including right here in at the Chemung County Historical Society.
|The book in question.|
|Hal Roach's brother Jack and little rascals Allen "Farina" Hoskins and Joe Cobb, ca. 1928|
In the same way Roach’s youthful exploits informed the series’ plot, his childhood experiences with race likely influenced his choice to have a diverse cast. By the time Roach was ten, Elmira had a population of approximately 35,000, including a moderately-sized black community. The core of the community was centered around Fourth and Dickinson Streets on the Eastside, but there was also a cluster of black families living on Elmira’s Southside and many of those employed as domestic servants lived with their employers throughout the city. Although few blacks lived in Roach’s neighborhood on Columbia Street, he almost certainly attended classes with black students. He was also probably familiar with the Industrial School, which offered integrated recreational spaces and vocational training to the city’s poorer children.
|Elmira Public School No. 1, class of 1895|
When the first Our Gang shorts with their racially integrated cast came out, the public reaction was decidedly mixed. Many blacks, including influential members of the press and the head of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), felt that it might be a vehicle for racial uplift and help to wear down old prejudice. Others felt that the shorts simply recycled old minstrel show tropes and that the characters were, in effect, black children in blackface. Whites too had mixed reactions. In the Jim Crow South, where separate-but-equal kept black and white kids in different schools, theatres and theater-goers praised the series’ minstrel-like characterization even as they protested the integrated gang. Northern whites also expressed certain racial anxieties over the films, but held no protests against them, unlike their southern brethren.
|Lantern slide used to advertise "School Begins" (1928) in a local theater. Note the integrated classroom with a side order of racism.|
Of course, I’ve only discussed America’s initial reaction to the Our Gang films. There were over 200 Our Gang films made between 1922 and 1944, and then those shorts were later re-cut and re-released for television syndication from the 1950s through the 1980s. As American’s views about race and race relations changed, so too did their views on the series. If you’re interested in learning more about this, I suggest you do what I did: read Julia Lee’s book.
|Label for an "Our Gang" doll of George "Freckles" Warde, ca. 1922|