Madame Toussaint Welcome

One of the first black woman filmmakers in the country

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On summer days in 1916, Madame Toussaint Welcome would have seen young men in uniform marching a few blocks south of her brownstone.

The 15th New York National Guard would march out from the Lafayette Theater as their armory, through the theater center of Harlem. They would spend more days in the trenches than any other American unit.

She would memorialize their efforts in "Charge of the Colored Divisions," the only painting accepted by the U.S. government's National War Savings Committee by an African-American artist to be used as a war poster in the War Savings Stamp and Liberty Loan drives. Nearly 100,000 full-color posters of her painting, featuring a soldier with the 15th's insignia on his canteen, were distributed across the country.

And she became one of the first black woman filmmakers in the country and took a stand to defend them.

She was born in Lenox, in 1885 as Jane Louise Van Der Zee. Her brother James, a year younger, would become known as one of the central photographers of the Harlem Renaissance. A record of her life exists mainly in the background of his, and yet she was an artist and musician in her own right — his biographers often say she was as talented, or more.

She and her husband, Ernest Toussaint Welcome, ran the Toussaint Conservatory of Art in Harlem and Queens for more than 40 years, and they joined the growing silent film industry as filmmakers with the Toussaint Motion Picture Exchange.

The Van Der Zees — she was the oldest of six children — grew up in Lenox, where their aunts ran a bakery, and their grandparents lived next door, writes Rodger Birt in "A Live in American Photography," a study of James Van Der Zee's work.

They were a warm and musical family — everyone played an instrument and sang. And they would paint and draw together on winter nights, writes Jim Haskins in "Picture Takin' Man," a biography of Van Der Zee based in long conversations with him.

Jennie studied at the Kellogg School of Art in Pittsfield, and by 1908 she had married Ernest Toussaint Welcome; her family members were heading to New York to find work, and she and her husband moved to Harlem and opened the Toussaint Conservatory.

Jennie painted and drew, and she and her school taught oil painting and watercolor, piano and violin, bass and reeds — she and her husband took out a full-page ad in the NAACP's journal, The Crisis, as early as 1910.

"He was a good promoter," Van Der Zee says in "Picture Takin' Man." "Anything he set his mind to, he was successful at it. He had the finest singing voice I ever did hear. He should have sung professionally."

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Ernest, like Jennie, was an entrepreneur and an artist. They would run many businesses together — a magazine, a realty company, a photography studio.

By 1918, the Toussaint Welcomes had branched into film. The young film industry was taking root in New York City, writes Paula J. Massood in "Making a Promised Land: Harlem in Twentieth-Century Photography and Film." Between 1918 and 1925, she says, there were at least eight black-owned-and-operated film production companies in Harlem.

This was the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance.

Black filmmakers were rising too, Massood wrote. Black audiences and film critics, theater owners and managers were protesting against demeaning characters and stereotypes in many American films; they wanted films to tell the real stories of the lives they led and could hope to lead.

The Toussaint Welcomes were making newsreels, Massood wrote, like most of the filmmakers in Harlem then.

On June 8, 1918, the Toussaint studio announced in the Chicago Defender a film on African-American soldiers overseas: "Twelve stirling [sic] chapters of two full reels each," Margaret Olin wrote in "Touching Photographs."

It was a story Madame Toussaint Welcome worked passionately to tell. The Toussaint Pictorial Company published one million post cards of black soldiers, according to The Defender, and one of the only examples of her work on record is her World War I poster.

She continued to paint and draw and to run her school through the Depression and World War II. She continued to run both the conservatory and his real estate business following the death of her husband.

"She always had the house and yard full of children," Van Der Zee said in "Picture Takin' Man." "She'd teach them painting and drawing and music and wouldn't charge any fee; she was just interested in their learning."

Her brother closed the school after she died from cancer in 1956.

— Kate Abbott, Eagle Correspondent


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