Civic News

Hear how Howard High School teachers fought KKK propaganda in 1916

The first modern blockbuster was blatantly racist, so two local teachers fought to make sure it wouldn't be screened at the Dupont Playhouse. This Forgotten Wilmington event tells their story.

Howard High School in Wilmington. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1915, Hollywood’s first sweeping big budget film was released. D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation” was a three-hour, 12-reel film with pioneering camerawork and the first battle sequence with a cast of hundreds.

It’s also one of the most racist mainstream movies ever made. Set during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, the film was full of white actors in blackface playing harmful stereotypes, including a “brute” that chases a white woman and an alternate reality where, after Emancipation, Black people stole elections to fill Congress, where they got drunk and caused chaos.

The heroes of the story are the Ku Klux Klan. Not an allegory of the KKK — literal hood wearing Klansmen who ride in like the Calvalry in an old Western to save America and block Black people from voting again.

The film has been largely limited to academic viewings through the last three-quarters of the century, but when it came out in 1915, it was massively commercially successful. The real-life KKK would be reborn it its aftermath.

While it was a hit, even 105 years ago, people protested it across the country. Two of those people were teachers at Howard High School in Wilmington — the first high school for African Americans in Delaware — who fought to block a screening of “Birth of a Nation” at The DuPont Playhouse (now the Playhouse on Rodney Square) in 1916.

The high school, named for Union General Oliver Otis Howard, was founded in 1867. In 1975, it became the Howard Career Institute, and is currently part of the New Castle County Vo-Tech School District.

Howard High alum Shane Cannon is working on an in-depth research project on the history of his alma mater, and uncovered the story of the successful fight to prevent the Hollywood KKK propaganda from coming to Wilmington’s most prestigious theater.

You can hear Cannon tell the whole story at this month’s Wilmington History Society event, Howard Teachers vs. The Dupont Playhouse, on Dec. 18 at the Chelsea Tavern.

This free event includes a networking happy hour. Click here to RSVP.


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