Nettie Asberry was born the year the Civil War ended, just weeks after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and lived long enough to watch the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination on television.
For 75 of her 103 years she lived in Tacoma. Most of them in her home at 1219 South 13th in the hilltop neighborhood. But on a late Spring day in 1915 Nettie was in Oakland and she went to see a movie.
The film was a popular sensation and the seats were full in the big theater. The movie house did not segregate seating for people of color and even if they had its likely Mrs. Asberry would have taken a center seat on the main floor anyway. At 50 years old Nettie Asberry was no shrinking violet.
Nettie was one of Tacoma’s most respected artists and teachers. She held an arts degree from the University of Kansas and a Ph.D. in music composition from the Kansas Conservatory of Music and Elocution. In 1913, Nettie founded the Tacoma Chapter of the NAACP, cited in the organization’s magazine Crisis, as the first chapter west of the Mississippi River. She was an activist in the suffrage movement gaining women, including black women, the right to vote in Washington State in 1910, a decade before the passage of the 19th amendment nationwide.
Nettie was also an accomplished speaker and performing artist. She was entirely familiar with the theater surroundings that day as the house lights went down and the silent picture’s thundering theme music began. But she was braced for a cultural shock and deep personal offense. Following a pretentious on-screen statement claiming artistic license in the story to follow, the proscenium filled with the main title-The Birth of a Nation.
D.W. Griffith’s extravagant 12 reel, three hour long melodrama was based on the 1905 novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr., a southern baptist minister and outspoken white supremacist. Filmmaker Griffith rewrote the angry, racist plot into a screenplay that weirdly conflated North and South post Civil War interests into a racial crusade against reconstruction, freed slaves and African Americans as a whole.
Birth of a Nation began with a startling full screen message ” The bringing of the African to America planted the first seeds of disunion.” followed by a vignette showing a slave market and the brokering of black prisoners by a white overseer. Nettie watched with the rest of the audience but for her there was a bitter wound inflicted. Nettie was the youngest of six children born to her mother Violet Craig and she was the only one who was not born into slavery. Nettie’s father William Wallingford was the slave owner of Violet and the children. Only Nettie was born free.
As the movie narrative unfolded for Nettie and the audience around her, a series of increasingly ugly episodes of political and social injustice were presented as the consequences of black freedom from slavery and reconstruction. The spectacular visual innovations in Griffith’s film blinded audiences to the racial prejudices in the story and the historical accuracy of Dixon’s screenplay was championed and confounded by a powerful marketing campaign and one very potent political voice.
Thomas Dixon was a college classmate of President Woodrow Wilson, a scholarly Southerner raised in Augusta Georgia who had gone on to the presidency of Princeton University and then the United States of America. Dixon’s request to show the film to Wilson led to its showing in the executive residence for the entire presidential staff and families. On February 18, 1915, The Birth of a Nation became the first motion picture shown in the White House.
When Nettie Asberry saw The Birth of a Nation a few months later she, like most of America, would have seen President Wilson’s enthusiastic statement about film.
“It is like writing history with Lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.”
Nettie’s reaction was very different that day in Oakland. In the time honored manner of critical audiences everywhere, Mrs Asberry turned heads in the auditorium by loudly hissing the performance and actively disrupting the show. She remembered “People turned around and stared at me, but I had lost my equilibrium: I was in a fighting mood. My sister who accompanied me strove to quiet me but to no avail; but happily the end was near and we filed out.”
Back home in Tacoma the following year word came that The Birth of a Nation was going to be shown again at a downtown theater in Tacoma. In the months since its showing at the White House, the film was an unprecedented financial success selling more than 825,000 tickets in New York alone. But it was also a controversial, divisive cultural statement coming during the 50th anniversary of the end of the civil war and building political tensions around America’s involvement in the First World War and ratification of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote.
1916 was an election year and President Wilson was in a tight race against Republican Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes and the looming possibility that Theodore Roosevelt would enter the race as a third party candidate as he did in 1912. To keep his political support from the Southern states and still satisfy suffrage supporters, Wilson nuanced his lukewarm support for ratification of the 19th amendment by suggesting the exclusion of black women from voting in the south. Nettie Asberry was a fierce warrior in passing women’s suffrage in Washington State in 1910 and she was vigilant in protecting the language that included women of color. She would not have been happy with the president’s compromise.
The Birth of a Nation fueled a revival of the Ku Klux Klan centered in Indiana and the mid west and Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. Membership in the white supremacy organization during the late teens and 20’s far exceeded it’s numbers during the Reconstruction era and the organization morphed from a militaristic vigilante group into a militant racist, anti immigrant secret society. But The Birth of a Nation also helped energize the NAACP with its targeted attack on African Americans and it’s distorted version of history.
In Tacoma, the local chapter of the NAACP that Nettie Asberry had organized and launched in 1913, met with Tacoma’s black leaders to discuss the showing of the film. Since its release, protests and civic actions against Birth of a Nation had occurred in cities across the country led by NAACP chapters, church groups and allies like W.E.B. Du Bois, editor of The Crisis, Jane Addams who called the film a “pernicious caricature of the Negro race…unjust and untrue.” and Rabbi Stephan Wise the nation’s leading reform Rabbi who termed the film an “inexcusably foul and loathsome libel on a race of human beings,”. In Tacoma, among a series of speeches, meetings with the Mayor and City Council, public displays and sermons the protesters arranged to have a statement published prominently in the Tacoma Ledger newspaper. Nettie was chosen to write it.
Nettie Asberry’s letter of protest against the Birth of a Nation, published on August 13,1916, is one of the most important documents in Tacoma’s civil rights history. It reflects the sharp mind and social conscience of a women very much in tune with her own time and place but with a forward gaze that reaches us today. In her letter she addressed the political intent of Dixon’s racist story and the artistic merits of D.W. Griffith’s dramatic film making but she seemed to emphasize the cultural damage done by The Birth of a Nation by focusing on its handling of history. In choosing words for the letter she seemed to be responding directly to Woodrow Wilson’s statement about lightening and truth. It was Asberry versus Wilson, a black women in a Pacific Northwest city against the President of the United States. The contrary quote she used to describe The Birth of a Nation was:
“It is not a work of art for art’s sake, to be so enjoyed; it is not history as an impartial historian understands history. It is a deliberate and skillful bit of treachery.”
Nettie Asberry and Tacoma’s black community did not stop the showing of The Birth of a Nation in Tacoma in 1916. In the years just before big movie theaters like the Pantages and Rialto were built to seat hundreds of movie goers however they did dampen Tacoma’s appetite for the controversial picture. There are no records of the film showing more than once for a small audience. More importantly, Tacoma’s established and growing black community demonstrated an activism and meaningful influence on Tacoma’s civic and cultural matters led by the forceful voice of Nettie Asberry.
Full Text of the Asberry Letter, August 13, 1916
Thanks to Lauren Hoogkamer at the City of Tacoma Historic Preservation Office, Creative Colloquy, Columbia Magazine and the Tacoma Public Library for help with this story.
The Asberry house still stands on South 13th Street and a growing effort is underway to see it preserved.