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Pam Thomas, creator of documentary films such as "Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies," will receive her bachelor's degree from the University of Cincinnati after 34 years.


Never too late


Three decades and one course later, successful documentarian Pam Thomas finishes the degree she thought she earned in 1982


 

 

 

 

by Melanie Schefft
513-556-5213

Photos/Melanie Schefft and provided

Dec. 9, 2016

For the second time in over 34 years, Pamela Thomas will proudly walk in the University of Cincinnati’s commencement ceremony  –– but this time she’ll have her bachelor’s in hand and will be that much closer to her dream of graduate school.

“When I graduated in 1982 I thought I had all my ducks in a row, ready to get my bachelor's degree in the mail in a few weeks, then head off to live in Boston,” reflects Thomas. “Instead, what I received was a notice of library fines and an outstanding science course I had to fulfill before I could receive my diploma.”

Thinking she was taking care of the outstanding requirement, Thomas took an astrology course that summer before leaving, but she would learn much later that she was still short a math course.

In Boston, while working as the assistant publisher for the Harvard Law School alumni directory, Thomas’ fledging enthusiasm for the history of black American films began to flourish.

While attending a presentation on black American film at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Thomas experienced a pivotal moment. "During the screening of 'Body and Soul,' an early 20th century film produced by Oscar Micheaux about black American cinema, my passion was born," she says.

Although she wasn't familiar with him, she was intrigued, and soon, his work would change the course of her life.

“I was shocked –– even though I studied film at UC’s School of Design, Architecture and Art [now DAAP] I knew nothing about early black American film,” says Thomas.

 

Poster of three identical images of Oscar Micheaux, dean of black American film

Thomas' "Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies" first appeared on WGBH Boston as part of the PBS "American Experience" in 1994.

 

 

 

A star is born

In a quest to feed her newfound interest, Thomas began using her film studies skills in her spare time to create a documentary film about Micheaux, a man considered by many as the “dean of black American film.” Working at Harvard allowed Thomas access to several libraries on campus, even the libraries closed off to everyone but researchers.

Thomas immediately set out to create a film documentary about Micheaux and the comprehensive history of black American cinema.

“My investigation led to discovering that black folks have been making movies since the beginning of the movie industry,” Thomas says.

During her first two years of research, several quintessential names kept popping up, such as Pearl Bowser, the definitive scholar on Oscar Micheaux and co-director of "Midnight Ramble," Clyde Taylor, noted black film scholar and "Midnight Ramble" script writer and Bestor Cram of Northern Light Productions, an award-winning filmmaker who was also "Midnight Ramble" co-producer.

Throughout the next 10 years, Thomas added to her production team and eventually partnered with WGBH Boston to complete "Midnight Ramble" for PBS, the “American Experience." The initial broadcast was in 1994.

Thomas is enthusiastic when talking about her 1994 project “Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies.” She describes it as an introspective on Micheaux and the history of black American films, as well as the foundation of contemporary black American cinema.

With Thomas as the producer, "Midnight Ramble" covered the “race movie” time period, which encompassed Micheaux’s career from 1910-1950.

 

People gathered, standing and sitting at the Stand Up and Vote event in Cincinnati

Thomas and friends at the Stand Up and Vote event and film screening prior to the 2016 election. photo/Jan Michelle-Kearney, Cincinnati Herald

 

Another bump in the road

As fate would have it, however, Thomas’ world came to a sudden halt after learning she had colon cancer. In a temporary shift in focus from lecturing and research, Thomas moved to Cincinnati to live with family during her treatment.

“Throughout my treatment I somehow managed to continue my research,” says Thomas. “Finally surviving two bouts of cancer, I decided to settle in Cincinnati and continue the film festival branch of my career with 'Fade2Black (F2B), A Retrospective Celebration of Black American Film, 1910 to the Present.’”

The F2B retrospective will premiere October 6-8, 2017 and will include filmmaker/presenter discussions, panels, tributes and film screenings. “The historical context will help give people a better sense of what these films are about and why they are significant,” says Thomas.

 

Poster of Raw Stock, a film screening by Pam Thomas.
Poster of Raw Stock, celebrating cinema of color in Cincinnati.

Raw Stock, a special event in Cincinnati in conjunction and collaboration with the Race Exhibit, celebrated cinema of color.


It’s never too late

Now five years out from her successful cancer treatments, Thomas has decided on graduate school, but in the process found she still had another obstacle, one more math class she needed to complete to receive her degree.

Once again she didn't let that stop her. She resolved the matter with UC enrollment management and finished her last required course this fall at Xavier University. As she crosses UC's commencement stage this time, she says she'll smile confidently because now she's got it –– her bachelor’s –– a degree that carries a double value for her.

“It signifies that no problems are too insurmountable as long as the passion is there, and this diploma now opens the door to attend graduate school,” Thomas adds.

Thomas says UC has been so accommodating, even waiving her graduation fee this time around.

“We were more than pleased to assist Pam in finding a path to complete her University of Cincinnati bachelor’s degree,” says Caroline Miller, UC vice provost for enrollment management. “These delays in completing degrees happen more times than most people would believe. Kudos to her.


Fade2Black poster celebrating black American cinema, 1910 to the present.
Poster featuring the Black American Cinema Series for Black History Month.

Posters celebrated black American cinema during Black History Month through events by F2B and Black Folks Make Movies.

People sitting at a film screening held at the Clifton Public Library.

Film history admirers learn about the history of black American cinema while viewing "Body and Soul" as part of the Black American Cinema Screening Program held at the Clifton Public Library.

 

Thomas will pursue a master's degree next year at Union Institute and University in Cincinnati in history and culture focusing on the history of black American film. She then plans to earn her PhD in women and gender studies, focusing on black American women filmmakers from 1878 to the present and hopes to inspire future film-studies students along the way.

The ultimate goal for continuing her research, according to Thomas, is to publish and celebrate it with the hope of leaving a legacy about the impact black American films have had on American cinema.

As Thomas approached each hurdle in her life she says she let her passions guide her past thinking about what she couldn't do and instead, she focused on the things she could do.

The more history she unraveled the more she appreciated the privelege of traveling across the country to share the story of this fascinating film genre with the world.

“I believe I have the right tools and was in the right place at the right time,” she says. “This journey was meant to be.”

 

Pam Thomas reflects on her journey toward receiving her bachelor's degree at UC. photo/Melanie Schefft
Pam Thomas stands with UC Interim President Beverly Davenport as she receives her bachelor's degree at UC graduation. photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services

Pam Thomas (on the left) reflects on her amazing journey, from documentary filmmaker to achieving her bachelor's degree at UC from Beverly Davenport, UC's interim president (on the right). photo/Joseph Fuqua II/UC Creative Services


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