Tuesday, February 05, 2008

New film sheds light on shameful story of racial cleansing in the U.S. Whites in Forsyth County, Georgia used dynamite to destroy black homes and forced more than 1,000 African-American residents to abandon the land on which they lived without compensation for their losses

By Edmund W. Lewis

One of the seldom-told stories of post-Civil War America revolves around the domestic terrorism practiced by some whites that practiced racial cleansing through violence or the threat of violence to forcibly remove countless blacks from their homes and land.

A new film, "Banished," tells the story of three of those towns -Forsyth County, GA, Pierce City, MO and Harrison, AR - and the descendants of the African-American families who were forcibly removed from their homes and towns. Banished, an episode in the Emmy Award-winning PBS series, Independent Lens, is slated to air Feb. 19.

Telling the stories of these African-American families is award-winning filmmaker Marco Williams, whose previous projects include "Freedom Summer" (2006), "MLK Boulevard: The Concrete Dream" (2003), "TWO TOWNS OF JASPER" (2002), and "Without A Pass" (1992).
In what is considered one of the largest documented incidents of racial cleansing involving blacks in the history of the United States, Whites in Forsyth County, Georgia used dynamite to destroy black homes and forced more than 1,000 African-American residents to abandon the land on which they lived without compensation for their losses.
"The terror was substantial and they did not have time in many cases to sell their land," Cox Newspapers reporter Elliot Jaspin explains in the film. "And after they left, a lot of them were too afraid to come back to try and negotiate sale of land, so basically the land is lost."
During one of the film's most compelling moments, determined family members whose forebears lost 80 acres as a result of the racial cleansing are shown tidying up a small piece of land in Forsyth County, GA that holds the remains of some of their ancestors.
"Now that we know where it is, we could put a fence around it, go back periodically and keep it clean and make it look like what it is: sacred ground. To us, it is sacred ground," Strickland family descendant Dorothy Pemberton tells Williams.
"The Strickland family clearly demonstrates that despite what occurred there is a real strength in family," Williams said last week in an interview with The Louisiana Weekly. "When younger members of the Strickland family heard the matriarch repeatedly express a desire to visit the homestead and burial ground, they finally summoned enough family members - very extended family - to go visit their land and reconnect" with their past.
"It's profoundly moving and in some ways symbolic," he continued. "Flags and monuments are all symbols and we obviously imbue those symbols with importance. It's one of my favorite moments in the film."

Williams told The Louisiana Weekly that he was very impressed with the grace, dignity and strength of the African-American descendants he interviewed in the film. "Two of my favorite (subjects) are the elderly gentleman and woman who appear in Forsyth County," he said. "They kind of represent the breadth and scope of it. ... I was profoundly moved by Lillie Nash and Carl Dickerson. His words, his dignity...he was basically saying, 'Who has a right to kick me off my land? Nobody has a right.' He's absolutely correct, he's absolutely correct, but he says it with such, in some sense, generosity. He doesn't say 'I'm going to get retribution,' he just points out to us the injustice.
"I'll admit that the aggrieved party invariably engenders the greatest amount of sympathy, but that said, I think that the men and women who speak (in the film) are worthy of the sympathy and empathy that they engender."
In another moving part of the film, siblings are seeking to unearth the remains of their great-grandfather in order to re-bury them with those of other family members who have passed away. Unable to grasp the profundity of what these African-American families are experiencing, the town's elected officials refuse to cover the expenses associated with recovering the two men's ancestor's remains.
Asked about the possibility of a follow-up film on these towns and the African-American descendants he interviewed, Williams said, "That's a complicated question because there are things that I wish that I had done differently or done more of for this film. I wish that I had focused almost in an investigative manner on what happened to black-owned land. I could see myself visiting that thematically in some perspective or another because land is so tangible."
Williams said that after a recent screening of the film in Atlanta, he received an email from someone impacted by "Banished."
"She said that she hadn't really thought about reparations and hadn't really involved herself in it, but after watching 'Banished,' she couldn't help but think about 'Gone With The Wind' and Scarlett O'Hara and the whole notion of how important land is," he recalled. "She kind of got it. She was a white woman who got it and she felt it. I think that that could be an interesting follow-up, although a big challenge because I think people don't really want to deal with that."
Williams says he doesn't agree with those who say that the United States paid its debt in full to former enslaved Africans with the blood shed in the Civil War." I don't buy that," Williams told The Louisiana Weekly, "or even the more recent notion that the civil rights movement took care of everything and all things are better.
"I live in this country and things aren't all better," he continued. "But I also appreciate that things are a lot better and different than they were 50 years ago and certainly there are greater opportunities for African Americans. White people also benefit from the efforts to gain equality through the law. I find myself saying, 'Yeah, a lot has changed, but a lot more needs to change.'"
Williams told The Louisiana Weekly that he doesn't see the nation moving forward or backward with regard to race relations and open, honest dialogue about the significance of race in the United States in 2008. "I can't see either of those things happening, so what I really see is a kind of stasis of status quo unless there's some kind of leadership," he said. "When I speak to the notion of leadership, it's not like it needs to be black leadership; it just needs to be American leadership for this to be important.
"In some measure, if I have a hope for the film, it would be to take the film around this summer and identify black family reunions," he continued. "We spend a lot of energy building our family trees, getting together and having family reunions. My thought is, how about showing this film at black family reunions and then compelling and inspiring the families to not only work on the genealogy but to think about where their ancestors lived and doing some of the homework to find out whether some family members were expelled from their land?
He said that then there would be "a grassroots of awareness and each of those people might go to local, state or public representatives to begin to say, 'What can we do about this problem?' We may never redress or repair slavery in terms of reparations, but this is something very tangible."

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