1. Breaking News

The would-be blockbuster shot in Tampa was supposed to combat racism. That was a century ago.

Crews erected a Pharaonic Temple on the Hillsborough River in Sulphur Springs. Hundreds of locals played Nubian soldiers during the 1918 filming of "Birth of a Race." [Credit: Times files]
Published Nov. 20, 2018

TAMPA — Local residents appeared as extras in epic scenes set in ancient Egypt and the Biblical Garden of Paradise. Newspaper ads promised would-be financiers a 10 to 1 return if they invested in the film.

The producers of The Birth of a Race hailed the silent movie shot in Tampa more than a century ago as the next great cinematic achievement, one they said would improve race relations.

It was a major bust.

Following its premiere in Chicago 100 years ago this December, it failed at the box office, was roasted by critics and did nothing to ease racial tension. In fact, when the movie screened in Tampa the next year, black residents - including hundreds who were extras - were banned from the segregated theater.

Today, most of the nearly two-hour film is lost. The 10 minutes of footage still remaining is housed at the Library of Congress.

"We're lucky that much exists," said Fred Hearns, a local historian of African American history. "That film is an important part of the country's story. Tampa is a big part of it. To understand why it matters, you have to go back to 1915."

Historian raises profile of African-American history with walks through Tampa's past

That was the year the silent movie Birth of a Nation was released. Directed by D. W. Griffith, it is considered the first blockbuster movie feature. Ticket sales were estimated at $50 million.

The film also denigrated African Americans and romanticized the Ku Klux Klan. Historians credit Birth of a Nation with helping to rebuild that racist organization.

Set in the years immediately following the Civil War, Birth of a Nation depicts a South overrun with corrupt northerners and evil and buffoonish freed slaves portrayed by white actors in black face. The KKK then rides to the rescue and brings peace to the South.

"It was the first American epic film," said Andrew Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida Special Collections Department. "A lot of people who didn't originally subscribe to the ideas of the movie were impressionable. So they were willing to believe the narrative.

The KKK, which had been dormant since the end of the Civil War, rose again.

White soldiers used black child for target practice during grim chapter in Tampa's history

"Suddenly the Klan was even booming in places like Illinois," Huse said. "And that wasn't even part of its territory before."

Birth of a Race, directed by John W. Noble, was proposed as the cinematic answer to Birth of a Nation. The plot was to run from Biblical times through World War I and show the advancements and contributions of black people.

Filming took place primarily in Chicago and Tampa.

Scenes shot locally in January 1918 included an Egyptian chariot race, Jesus carrying his cross toward crucifixion and baby Moses being rescued from the river.

"The Bayshore, before all the development, was the Red Sea," historian Hearns said.

News stories from that month tell of carpenters erecting a room mimicking the one that hosted the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

"Clearly, this was a very ambitious project," historian Gary Mormino said. "You could make an argument that Birth of a Race was the most significant film ever made in Tampa. What an extraordinary story that during the racially fraught era of the Great War, that investors and artists could possibly finance and complete a film to challenge Birth of a Nation."

But by leaning heavily on a plot about two white brothers fighting on opposite sides of World War I, investors pushed the scope of the movie away from race relations and toward themes of patriotism and universal brotherhood.

Critics called the final product a disjointed story that did not fulfill its purpose. Worse, critics noted, a war-weary country did not want to watch a movie about war.

"As happens with flops, it was forgotten for a long time," librarian Huse said. "The footage all rotted away."

In death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. inspired change around Tampa Bay

What remains of the movie showcases its initial intent, Hearns said. There is a scene in which a white Jesus falls and drops a cross and a black man helps him to his feet. Another shows a white and black farmer working together in a field. Their farm clothes then change to military uniforms and they march toward the camera.

"It showed that blacks and whites need to come together," Hearns said. "It is a powerful scene and thank God it was saved. I wish we could see the rest of the movie."

Contact Paul Guzzo at or follow @PGuzzoTimes.


  1. Some of Tampa Bay's largest companies are being sold or are up for sale. Times files and Bloomin' Brands
    Tech Data is just the latest in a growing list of public companies bought up by out-of-state firms.
  2. Chief Veterinarian Mallory Offner examines a female rescue puppy at the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times
    With 250 of the pooches ready for adoption, each potential puppy parent has a 1-in-4 shot at getting picked in today’s drawing.
  3. People are lead out of Saugus High School after reports of a shooting on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019 in Santa Clarita, Calif.  The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department says on Twitter that deputies are responding to the high school about 30 miles  northwest of downtown Los Angeles. The sheriff’s office says a male suspect in black clothing was seen at the school. AP
    At least seven people were injured — one critically — in a shooting at Saugus High School when a gunman opened fire on the Santa Clarita campus early Thursday, authorities said.
  4. Hillsborough Community College solicited "non-binding letters of interest or intent” last month from developers interested in purchasing the Dr. Gwendolyn W. Stephenson District Administration Center on Davis Islands. OCTAVIO JONES  |  Times
    Developers have eyed the 3.7 acre waterfront parcel for years, but recent interest has prompted the college’s trustees to finally start the conversation.
  5. Pharmacist Wendy Sullivan gives a flu shot to Luz Acevedo at the Town 'N Country Senior Center in 2012. The 2019-20 flu season is expected to be a hard one, with Hillsborough County already leading the state in outbreaks. Associated Press
    The county leads the state in flu outbreaks so far this season, prompting an official call for parents to get their kids vaccinated.
  6. FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2017 file photo, Kodak Black arrives at the MTV Video Music Awards in Inglewood, Calif. The rapper has been sentenced to more than three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to weapons charges stemming from his arrest just before a scheduled concert performance in May. The 22-year-old admitted in August that he falsified information on federal forms to buy four firearms from a Miami-area gun shop on two separate occasions. JORDAN STRAUSS  |  Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
    The sentence was far less than the maximum 10-year sentence he could have received.
  7. Tech Data's headquarters in Largo. TD AGENCY  |  Courtesy of Tech Data
    The company is being sold to a private equity firm.
  8. An opened capsule containing Kratom. The Clearwater City Council was confronted by dozens of concerned citizens at a recent meeting who urged them not to ban the herbal supplement. Tampa Bay Times
    “I think there was a misunderstanding."
  9. An employee at Air General on Air Cargo Road spotted something suspicious while conducting routine scans of packages, a Tampa Fire Rescue spokesman said.
  10. Jacob "Jake" Weinert, 28, seen here holding his son Jasper in 2018, was killed Tuesday morning when a pickup truck struck him from him behind while he was riding on U.S. 301 in Tampa, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Courtesy Izabel Sgie
    Jacob Weinert, a 28-year-old father of two, was struck by a pickup near Sligh Avenue, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.