Monday, January 18, 2016

Our Gang

by Rachel Dworkin, archivist

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.
The story Hal Roach (1892-1992) liked to tell was that he came up with the Little Rascals in 1921 after watching a group of kids play in a lumber yard, but the idea could have just as easily come from his own youth.  Growing up on Elmira’s near-Westside at the turn of the 20th century, Roach was a scamp of the Tom Sawyer variety.  He and his friends ran around the neighborhood, paying games, staging photoplays, and scandalized old ladies by skinny dipping in the Chemung.  He took a series of odd jobs throughout his childhood, including one delivering groceries to the Reformatory.  Roach got sacked after he was caught smuggling tobacco to the inmates.  He was a cut-up at school too.  By the time he quit schooling altogether after being expelled from EFA, he had already been thrown out of half-dozen public and private schools throughout the city.

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

10 comments:

  1. I wonder how amazed Hal's neighbors were that he grew up to be a successful movie maker....also love the picture of the class of 1895.

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  2. Wonderful piece. Can't wait to read the book. When Hal Roach spoke at Elmira Commencement in 1990 (or thereabouts), he told us about having attended Sunday School one day at the Park Church where the guest speaker was... Mark Twain.

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  3. I absolutely loved watching OUR GANG on tv Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, and the others made the show a lot of fun lots of comical things and the adults too , thanks for sharing this really cool blog

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  4. Dear Rachel: Thanks for this. I tried to steer Julia in the right direction when she was researching her book. I need to get a copy and read it myself. If you had read our book, however, you would know there were more than (not "nearly") 200 Our Gang comedies made. And the photo here showing Farina and Joe misidentifies Jack Roach as his younger brother, Hal. If you visit the family plot in the cemetery there (where I wrote the epitaph for Hal), you will see the markers for both brothers, their parents, and an uncle. When Hal and I visited Elmira several times during the 1980s, he always enjoyed himself, and was therefore persuaded to alter plans to be buried next to his wife in Los Angeles. Best regards...Richard W. Bann

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and helpful comments. I have made some of the corrections you mentioned.

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  5. P.S. I fail to understand the caption with the slide alluding to "a side order of racism." Where? Based upon what? Please explain the prism through which you seek to find racism.

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    1. The only black child in the classroom is in the dunce cap. This perpetuates negative stereotypes against blacks as stupid and/or troublemakers.

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  6. In SCHOOLS BEGINS, Joe Cobb, white, causes the most trouble of anyone when he writes a note for the teacher filled with spelling and grammatical mistakes, and which contains a huge lie besides. Plus he is the only one in the film who gets spanked. Does that perpetuate the negative stereotype against whites as stupid and/or troublemakers? I think those who see race in everything, who seek out and look to define and divide people according to race, gender and class are the ones who are racist. Or at least misguided. The actor who the series was built around, Ernie Morrison, was black, and he always said that "Hal Roach was color blind. I didn't even know I was a black person there!" Instead of seeing everything through the prism of looking for incidents to define as racist, and calling attention to it, which only encourages the negative thinking and cycle of victimization, why not look for something positive -- such as how remarkable the portrayal of an integrated classroom was during the 1920s? Furthermore, Farina was Hal Roach's personal favorite of anyone who ever appeared in Our Gang. Hal was always seeking to win sympathy for him, so as to have any audience -- whether white, black or integrated -- identify with him, the black kid. So you might re-think the prism through which you view some of these things. P.S. I obtained a gmail address only to post here and will not see any e-mails sent there, only those directed to rbann@aol.com.

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  7. Another quick correction - that's a Mickey Daniels doll. For some reason, he was sometimes called "Freckles" in publicity material, merchandise, and the like. George Warde was never lucky enough - or well known enough - to have a stuffed likeness.

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  8. Another quick correction - that's a Mickey Daniels doll. For some reason, he was sometimes called "Freckles" in publicity material, merchandise, and the like. George Warde was never lucky enough - or well known enough - to have a stuffed likeness.

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