Wouldn’t it be great if Carolina had a professor of African American history who actually lived through the Civil Rights struggles and the desegregation of the public schools? Wouldn’t it be even better if that professor had grown up in the town where the university is located and experienced the tough adjustments that came with her move from an all-black school to an almost all-white school?
All those wishes came true recently when Charlene Regester visited North Carolina Bookwatch to talk about her book, “African American Actresses: The Struggle for Visibility, 1900–1960.”
From “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 to Hattie McDaniel in “Gone with the Wind,” to Ethel Waters in “Member of the Wedding” in 1952, African-American actresses made their way into American movies in the first half of the last century. Regester’s book tells the real stories of these women who became stars in a time of segregation and oppression.
Indiana University Professor Audrey McCluskey writes about the book, “In this important work, Charlene Regester brings into focus the lives and careers of representative black women actresses in Hollywood across generational divides in order to reposition them beyond the confining shadow of otherness and marginality. The sum result is a re-telling and correction of history.”
The book’s chapters titles are a list of the actresses Regester covers and hints of their stories: Madame Sul-Te-Wan: The Struggle for Visibility, Nina Mae McKinney: Early Success and Tumultuous Career, Louise Beavers: Negotiating Racial Difference, Fredi Washington: The Masquerades and the Masks, Hattie McDaniel: Centering the Margin, Lena Horne: Actress and Activist, Hazel Scott: Resistance to Othering, Ethel Waters: Personification of Otherness, and Dorothy Dandridge: Intertwining the Reel and the Real.
Regester explains how each actress had to compromise and accommodate to the racial restrictions of the times. Their successes brought them out of the ghetto but not into the living rooms of their white promoters and fans.
Regester’s own story, though underappreciated today, is an important part of North Carolina history. Thankfully, her story has been preserved by an oral history interview conducted by Susan Upton in 2001 and on file in the Southern Historical Collection.
Here is the public abstract of that interview:
“Charlene Regester recounts her educational experience in Chapel Hill public schools during the early integration efforts. Her parents ardently advocated for integrated schools as a means to improve blacks’ access to resources. They petitioned to transfer Regester into all-white Estes Hills Elementary School; she remained in integrated schools throughout her secondary school career. Though they did endorse school integration, Regester’s parents still attempted to protect her from the dangers of white racism by encouraging her not to patronize racist white businesses. Regester continued to heed their warnings even after the demise of Jim Crow facilities. Regester contends that integration cost blacks their identities and burdened them with a sense of inferiority. Her frustration with integration at her school led her to take part in the black student movement. She argues that most white students and teachers ostracized black students solely because of race, and she blames white teachers for establishing low standards for black students, which she says they then internalized. Regester also points to a racial and class divide within the Chapel Hill community: while the children of University of North Carolina professors had vast resources, poor whites and blacks had to compensate for their limited resources in other ways. Regester ends the interview with an evaluation of school integration. She contends that because of the psychological toll on blacks and the loss of black cultural institutions, integration did more harm than good.”
The abstract makes you want to hear the whole story, doesn’t it? Well, you do not have to wait to see and hear Professor Regester. You can watch her recent interview on North Carolina Bookwatch.