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Tressie Souders (1897-1995) was an African American film director. She is the first known African American female to direct a feature film. She was born in Frankfort, Kansas, to Robert Souders and Leuvenia Ann Bryant, who emigrated to Kansas as part of the Exoduster movement. The couple split, and Leuvenia remarried Chester A. Harris. There were six more children born into this union.
Souders grew up in Frankfort and graduated from Frankfort High School in 1918. She then moved to Kansas City, MO, where she found employment as a domestic worker. There are no historical records of how Souders began filmmaking. She participated in an amateur theater production entitled “Every Negro” written by Reverend A. Lawerence Kimbrough in 1918.
In 1922, the Afro-American Film Exhibitors Company of Kansas City, Missouri, contracted with Souders to distribute her film, “A Woman’s Error.”; making Souders the first known black woman to produce and direct a feature film. It was billed as being “produced by a young woman of our race and has been passed by critics as a picture accurate to Negro life.” To date, no copies of the film have been located. Souders is also believed to have written the screenplay for the film.
In 1923 and 1926, Souders relocated to Los Angeles, California continuing her quest to be part of the motion picture business. However, there is no further record of her working in the field. Public records only reflect her employment as a domestic worker. Souders was briefly married to Oscar West, a pool hall owner. By 1940 she was single and recorded living in San Francisco, California, at the Madame C.J. Walker Home for Girls. The remainder of her life would be spent in San Francisco. She died on January 17, 1995, just before her ninety-eighth birthday.
The Tressie Souders Film Society of the International Black Women’s Film Festival (IBWFF) was named after Souders in 2001 in San Francisco. The organization supports emerging and established filmmakers. The Tressie Souders Awards (“Tressies”) was established in 2008 (now known as the Black Laurel Awards). The Tressie Magazine has also been launched to provide “insightful articles about your favorite Black actresses….”
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