Dr. Thomas Cripps, a historian of African-American cinema and a retired Morgan State University professor, died of Alzheimer’s disease complications on his 86th birthday, Sept. 17, at Symphony Manor. He was a longtime Bolton Street resident.
Born in Baltimore and raised on West Mosher Street, he was the son of Benjamin F. Cripps, a Baltimore Gas and Electric employee, and his wife Marian F. Leach.
He was a 1950 graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and obtained a bachelor’s degree at Towson University and a master’s degree and doctorate at the University of Maryland College Park.
As a Polytechnic student, he pitched on the school’s baseball team, competed in the 1951 state championships and was scouted by the Brooklyn Dodgers. He worked summers at Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point and drove taxicabs in Baltimore city.
“Tom was a brilliant writer,” said former State Sen. Julian L. Lapides, a Bolton Hill neighbor. “Politically, Tom personified a 1950s liberal. He loved Baltimore and knew the city like the palm of his hand."
Professor Cripps wrote his dissertation on “The Lily White Republicans: The Party, the Negro, and the South in the Age of Booker T. Washington.”
He became a teacher at the University of North Carolina’s Pembroke campus where his students included members of the Lumbee Nation. While teaching, his students warned him that the Klu Klux Klan objected to him teaching the Lumbees. During a January 1958 Klan rally in Maxton, N.C., he and his wife temporarily fled their home to avoid a potential attack.
He was also active in the civil rights movement and participated in a voter-registration project of the Southern Christian Leadership Council in Atlanta in 1966.
After joining the faculty of Morgan State University, Dr. Cripps became interested in the history of African-Americans in film. One of his earlier studies focused on “Birth of a Nation,” director D.W. Griffin’s 1915 film. In 1962, he wrote a scholarly paper on critical black reaction to the movie. His study was awarded the George Hammond history prize.
He later served as a consultant to Turner Classic Movies.
“His interest was partially the product of a misspent youth. Tom spent a lot of time at the movies,” said his wife, Lynn Traut, a retired Johns Hopkins clinic manager. “His father had been an orphan and had a great appreciation for ‘the others.’ And ‘the others’ in Baltimore meant the city’s African-Americans.”
In a 1978 Sun article, he described watching movies at the old neighborhood film houses — the Met, Royal, Bridge, Regent, Walbrook, Astor, Windsor and Harlem.
While at Morgan, Dr. Cripps was coordinator of the University Television Project, which produced more than 40 programs on African-American life and culture.
He was also a visiting professor at the University of Delaware, Stanford and Harvard universities, and an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland College Park and Johns Hopkins University.
In 1977 he wrote a critically praised study, “Slow Fade to Black: The Negro in American Film, 1900-1942.” A Washington Post reviewer called the book “an important, perceptive, original and scholarly study of the Afro-American contribution to — and sometimes, systematic exclusion from — American cinema in the crucial four first decades of its history.”
His other works included “Black Film as Genre,” “Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era,” and “Hollywood’s High Noon: Moviemaking and Society before Television.”
“Tom was a nationally important scholar and a quintessential Baltimorean,” said Michael S. Franch, president of the Baltimore City Historical Society. “He had a clear view of the city and its imperfections, but it was home.”
Joseph Garonzik, a friend and Rodgers Forge resident, said, “Tom was a remarkable person. He was a brilliant scholar and one of the most accessible and down-to-earth persons you could meet. He had an infectious curiosity and was a terrific story teller.”
Professor Cripps gave talks at the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, the American Film Institute and the Museum of Modern Art. He also made numerous television and radio appearances.
At his death he was writing a memoir that included his observations of racial change in Baltimore.
A memorial will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.