Welton Jones was the first black firefighter to retire in Raleigh, North Carolina. More importantly, he and his peers sued the city of Raleigh for not sending service trucks to black neighborhoods during his career and won.
Jones is just one of the black Americans interviewed by Frederick Murphy for his documentary "The American South as We Know It," screening at the main branch of the Richmond library. The award-winning film explores the lives and experiences of blacks during the Jim Crow era, recalling incidents during a time of sustained racial tension.
The project came to life when Murphy began collecting oral histories from blacks with memories of life under Jim Crow laws, but he soon realized that given the visual nature of the 21st century world, a documentary had the potential to reach more people.
"I was finally coming to grips with all of the propaganda taught in the school system — and society as a whole — about the history of people of African descent," he says.
To find people to interview, Murphy Googled "civil rights activists in Mississippi" and eventually landed on the name Hermon Johnson Sr. in Mound Bayou, Mississippi. Mound Bayou was notable for having been founded by formerly enslaved people as an independent black community in 1887. After his first interview with Johnson, Murphy put a few snippets of the interview online and soon people were providing him the names of others worth speaking to.
Because Murphy had never made a film before, he enlisted the assistance of a young crew from a local film company called Nova Initia Productions, founded by Andrew Smith, a recent graduate of Johnson C. Smith University. Traveling through Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama and Virginia, the crew set out for a year and a half to document those who were eager to contribute to a comprehensive narrative of what life was like for blacks in the South.
Murphy was convinced that gathering the stories was important because history often repeats itself.
"The reality is, Jim Crow in its entirety never left," Murphy explains. "It's such a fine-oiled machine that it's found a way of manipulating itself to appear different generation after generation. Some of the ways people of color are being treated now is a direct reflection of then."
He cites actions such as over-patrolling neighborhoods, voter intimidation, predatory lending, red-lining and school zoning as prime examples of oppressive acts that continue to occur. "Same script, different cast, ya dig?" Murphy continues. "People have to understand what it meant historically so they can actually feel empowered enough now to name it and advocate against it."
Library and community services manager Natalie Draper decided to include the documentary in the library's Books for a Better World series, a local author series that focuses on social justice, history, healing and memory.
"We like to include a few documentaries in the series and this one is especially relevant to the themes we've been exploring," Draper says. "The series invites the public to engage in a conversation with the author, and with each other, about their work."
As a licensed professional counselor, Murphy understands the importance of providing people a safe space to vent, discuss and process their feelings after watching such an emotional film. But it's also important to him that audiences finally learn about the people who brought about change in their local communities by fighting for civil rights.
"We often get caught up on big names during the Civil Rights era, forgetting about the people who were in our own towns," he says. "My hope is to keep sparking interest in the underdogs of this beautiful thing called black history."
Often after the talk backs, he's approached by those seeking to discuss their personal stories and how historical trauma still affects them today.
"Some individuals haven't talked about these things in decades," he explains. Sometimes the reason for their silence is as simple as no one has ever asked them.
Richmond figures into the documentary because of its pivotal location during the Civil War. During Murphy's genealogy research, he was able to identify an enslaved grandmother and enslaved uncle who took the surname Keesee and were sold from Richmond to a Tennessee slaveholder. Negro League Hall of Famer Larry LeGrande from Roanoke is shown in the film and provided much information about Roanoke's Jim Crow days.
As encouraging as the election of Barrack Obama was, Murphy offers a reminder that Obama was admired much the way black office holders were during Reconstruction: as a beacon of hope.
"But one must understand this country was built on a hierarchal system and that system is one that ultimately defines the outcome of economic mobility, equal rights and equity," Murphy explains. His own optimism is based on seeing blacks taking matter in their own hands by becoming entrepreneurs.
"When we become less dependent on someone's corporation paying us, the more empowered and self-sufficient we become to create new legacies," Murphy says. "Just as our ancestors did prior to integration."
"The American South as We Know It" screens Sunday, June 9, at 2 p.m. at the main Richmond Library, 101 E. Franklin St, 646-7223