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Duke Receives Grant to Restore Depression-Era Films

Award is the largest of five grants for Waters films

Part of the Filmmaker H. Lee Waters Series

A young boy from the H. Lee Waters film from Mayodan.

Duke University is again getting national support in its efforts to restore the Depression-era films by North Carolina itinerant filmmaker H. Lee Waters.

The National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) announced this month a $50,000 matching grant to Duke's Rare Book, Manuscript and Special Collections Library for the preservation of additional Waters' films, known collectively as "Movies of Local People."

Films from 12 towns -- 11 in North Carolina and one in Virginia -- will be sent to Duke for preservation. The towns where the films were shot are Cliffside; Spindale; Erwin; Fuquay-Varina; Louisburg; Mayodan; Madison; Martinsville, Va.; Mooresville; Pilot Mountain; Taylorsville; and Thomasville.

Duke has received four smaller grants from the NFPF in the past five years to preserve Waters' films. The matching grants are new this year and are intended to support large projects to preserve films of outstanding historic or artistic significance.

Waters made more than 100 films of small town life from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s as he traveled through the Carolinas, Virginia and Tennessee. When Waters arrived at a town, he typically set up a camera in at least three locations: in front of the local textile mill, outside the public grade school and at the intersection of the town's main streets.

"He would film people going by with the idea of recording as many people as he could so that they would buy tickets when he came back to town two weeks later to project the film in the local movie theater," said Karen Glynn, Duke's visual materials archivist.

"These films are unusual because they are a record of everyday life under Jim Crow and they are accompanied by Waters' business ledgers, which note when and where the films were shown and how many people came to see them," Glynn said.

In 2004, "Kannapolis," a Waters' film in Duke's collection, was named to the National Film Registry, an honor reserved for films that reflect America's film heritage. The resulting publicity brought to light several more Waters' films, which Duke has acquired and now will preserve using the NFPF funds and its contributory $10,000 match.

In addition to Duke, the NFPF made grants to 28 other institutions this year. These institutions will preserve a total of 67 films that document subjects ranging from coal mining to Negro League baseball.