Activist, director, visionary: the extraordinary influence of Henry Hampton

Henry Hampton, acclaimed director, civil rights activists, and founder of film company Blackside, Inc. was born and raised in Richmond Heights, MO and attended St. Louis University High School. He studied literature at Washington University and graduated in 1961.

His influence was keenly felt by many, and both his artistry and his tireless civil rights activism influenced such notable leaders as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and great literary minds like Maya Angelou. The letters featured here make plain their admiration for Hampton and his oeuvre.

Barack Obama (below) wrote that he was a “great admirer” of Hampton’s work.  The future president asked if the eminent film producer would provide feedback on his recent book, Dreams from my Father. (click here for transcript)

Letter, Barack Obama to Henry Hampton, February 3, 1995. Henry Hampton Collection, Personal Papers, Item 7335, Box 6, Washington University Film and Media Archives.

Barack Obama to Henry Hampton, February 3, 1995. Henry Hampton Collection, Personal Papers, Item 7335, Box 6, Washington University Film and Media Archives.

Maya Angelou wrote by hand on July 24 , 1990 —  “Dear Henry, Thank you, dear honored Friend, for Eyes on the Prize. I am interested in Mandela [sic] story. Let’s spend time talking in Sept. Joy!  Maya”

Maya Angelou to Henry Hampton, July 24 1990. Henry Hampton Collection, Personal Papers, Sequence 3, Item 7462, Box 1, Washington University Film and Media Archives.

Maya Angelou to Henry Hampton, July 24 1990. Henry Hampton Collection, Personal Papers, Sequence 3, Item 7462, Box 1, Washington University Film and Media Archives.

 

After Hampton’s death, Bill Clinton wrote to Hampton’s sister, Judith, to express his condolences.   After commenting on Hampton’s considerable civil rights legacy, Clinton added a hand-written note: “Hillary and I liked and admired Henry very much.”

Dear Judi:

We were so sorry to learn of Henry’s death and wanted you to know we’re thinking about you during this difficult time.

Your brother made immeasurable contributions in the struggle for civil rights, and his loss will be deeply felt by those fortunate to have known and admired him. We are so grateful we had that opportunity.

We are praying for you and your family. God bless you all.

Sincerely,

Bill Clinton [signed]

Bill Clinton to Judith Hampton, November 25, 1998. Henry Hampton Collection, Personal Papers, Sequence 8, Item 7519, Washington University Film and Media Archives.

Bill Clinton to Judith Hampton, November 25, 1998. Henry Hampton Collection, Personal Papers, Sequence 8, Item 7519, Washington University Film and Media Archives.

More about Henry Hampton

Henry Hampton attended McGill and Harvard University before moving to Boston and founding Blackside, Inc. in 1968. Hampton went on to produce some of the most influential civil rights films in American history. These included Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years (1954-1965); and Eyes on the Prize II: America at the Racial Crossroads 1965-mid 1980s; The Great Depression (1993); Malcolm X: Make It Plain (1994); America’s War on Poverty (1995); Breakthrough: The Changing Face of Science in America (1997); I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts (1999); Hopes on the Horizon: Africa in the 1990s (2001); This Far By Faith: African American Spiritual Journeys (2003).

Filmmaker, Henry Hampton and Marian Wright Edelman during the production of "Eyes on the Prize II"

Filmmaker, Henry Hampton and Marian Wright Edelman during the production of “Eyes on the Prize II”

Henry Hampton’s entire film archive, including personal papers, scripts, drafts, and ephemera, is held by the Washington University Film and Media Archive. For news and more information about Hampton’s work and his collection at Washington University, be sure to check out the Henry Hampton Film Series.

February is African American History Month.


This post is part of an occasional series, “Special Delivery – Letters from the WUSTL Archives and Special Collections.”

For more information about the letters and documents displayed here, or in general about Special Collections please contact us.

About the author

Lisa Lillie is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Washington University in St. Louis.