'Banished' Recounts History of Forced Segregation

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Nearly a century ago, thousands of African-Americans were forced by white people to flee their homes and neighborhoods in communities across America. Their stories are told in Banished, a new documentary airing tonight on the PBS program "Independent Lens." The film's director, Marco Williams, explains the project.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a moment we're going to pause to remember the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. It's the Day of Remembrance. But first, here at TELL ME MORE we've been searching for hidden history, important stories that seem to have been left out of the history books. A new documentary tells one such story. From the 1860s through 1920s, African-Americans in dozens of counties across the country were systematically forced out of their homes and off their land, and most of them never returned.

Their stories are told in the film "Banished," a new documentary by Marco Williams airing tonight on the PBS program "Independent Lens." Marco Williams joins me now from our bureau in New York City. Welcome. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Professor MARCO WILLIAMS (New York University): Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, people are familiar with the idea of gentrification, right? You know, where rents rise and people get forced out of their homes that way. This is not what you're talking about.

Prof. WILLIAMS: No, this is not an ancient form of gentrification, although the end result is much the same. These are expulsions based on race. And so in many ways people might see these in alignment with incidents in Kosovo or Rwanda, et cetera. These are American racial or ethnic cleansings.

MARTIN: How did you hear about this?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Actually, I came to this through the work of a journalist named Elliot Jaspin, who works for the Cox newspapers. He had been researching this story to develop into a book and he approached the Center for Investigative Reporting, who then asked me, because they knew my work "Two Towns of Jasper," and asked me if I would be interested in developing a documentary about it.

MARTIN: One of the families you focus on are the Stricklands. It's a family from Forsyth, Georgia. Here's Carl Dickerson, a descendant of that family.

Mr. CARL DICKERSON: This is my grandmother. Her name was Maddie Bill Black(ph), that had to leave from Forsyth County. They came to them and said, all of you got to go - tonight, you know. Got to get out of here tonight or we're gonna kill you.

MARTIN: Do you have a sense of how widespread a practice this was? Like for example, was this something that was mainly a couple of states? Was it mainly the south? Or was it broader than that?

Prof. WILLIAMS: It's much broader than one might think. And in fact most people make the assumption that these things occurred in the Deep South. But in fact they really - the preponderance of these incidents were in border states: Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri. Yes, Georgia, but as you can see, mostly border states. And I guess there's a logic to that. African-Americans had been freed from slavery, moving north, northward, Reconstruction, homesteading, finding homes, creating homes. I found evidence of an expulsion in the state of Maine, as well as Colorado and Wisconsin.

MARTIN: What did you find out about why this happened? What was the motivation?

Prof. WILLIAMS: The motivation is really the motivation for many race riots in the United States during this period. There was an allegation of an assault of a white woman there by a black man, the arrest of a black man, and the bringing to justice, if you will, of that black man. But invariably that justice was in the form of lynch law; the black man was lynched.

From that moment, from the moment of the lynching, white mobs sort of rose up and told blacks to leave. And it wasn't kind of just like, you know, please go. It was at the threat of life or death. Fire bombings of homes, gunshots, et cetera. So it was a real form of sort of terrorizing the black community until the black community was completely gone from that town or county.

MARTIN: To give an example of the breadth of what you're talking about, here's another story, that of James Brown recounting how his ancestors were driven out of Pierce City, Missouri.

Mr. JAMES BROWN: That's all my family. And they even tell a story how they escaped, where the bullets were coming through the house. They went to the cellar and then from there they crawled through the grass, hid by the well; bullets were hitting the wells, so then they ran off into the woods.

MARTIN: Is it your sense, Professor Williams, that families passed these stories down to each other - they kept these stories within the family - but that people outside didn't know about it? It was something kind of - like it's considered kind of your own personal story? Was there ever any effort to kind of bring people to account, bring the authorities to account? Because clearly this could not have taken place without the complicity of authorities.

Prof. WILLIAMS: There's something very tragic and complicated about this history. It really is a buried, if not hidden history. You've used the clips from the Browns. James Brown tells the story that he knew that his family had been from Pierce City, and he knew that they had left, but he never knew the reason why. His father never told him the reason why. It wasn't until he met a white woman at an event, I think it was at the airport, and she said that she was from Pierce City. And he said, oh, my family's from Pierce City. And she shook his hand and said, I'm so sorry. It was at that moment that he felt the need to go investigate further.

So I really would say that these experiences are the types of experiences that families actually hide, they put in the closet, they bury. I think there's an element of shame and embarrassment. Now to your second question, the irony, however, is that these incidents were reported in the news. The clip we just listened to, James Brown is reading and illustrating, pointing out to me from the St. Louis Post Dispatch, an account of what happened to his family. It was front page news.

So were communities brought to account, brought to justice? No. And in some ways, that is an undercurrent of my film. How do we redress the past?

MARTIN: Well, that does lead me to a question that I wanted to ask, is that when something is stolen from people, we have procedures in this country by which they can get it back if they figured out that it was stolen. Your film and the reporting done by the other journalist who assisted with this project suggests there was a clear chain of custody, in many cases there were deeds. People had, they had proof that they had ownership of these properties.

Having been forced from their land in this way, do they have any claim to get it back? And have any of them ever tried?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Well, I think that the unfortunate aspect - or some might say the fortunate aspect of American jurisprudence is that it's very narrow in its interpretation. And there is a facet of American law that states that there is a stature of a limitation in which time a person can bring a claim. Now I can't give you the exact amount of time, but what I can say is in the cases of these banishments, their descendants have essentially exceeded the time limit for bringing a claim. So the courts are not really a viable framework for recovery.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with filmmaker Marco Williams about his new documentary, "Banished," about the history of forced removal of African-Americans from some American counties and towns. County officials, officials of some of these places, have been, you know, forced to confront this past. In fact, he's got an interview with a county official named Phil Bettis in Forsyth County, Georgia, who was tasked with a meeting with some descendants of family members who had been removed from their, to sort of talk about what should happen. Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Banished")

Mr. PHIL BETTIS (Forsyth County Official): I feel compassion to the point of should our community say this is something we should address? And it's a difficult question. I mean, I feel that sorryness for them, I feel that compassion, but, you know, it's been a long time.

MARTIN: What do you make of that argument, Mr. Williams? It's kind of - what's the expression? Let sleeping dogs lie?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Yeah, that's a poignant moment, actually, because Mr. Bettis is, I think in his soul, he knows something is not right. And his soul, he knows that perhaps something should be done, but I think more in the position of an official and not somebody who now lives in this community and doesn't really want to deal with it. He puts forth a kind of barrier.

And whether it's like let the sleeping dogs lie or let old soldiers lie, which is a quote from the film, I think many of the citizens of these communities do not really want to be confronted with the past. Because at that point, I guess one could say you open a Pandora's box. What happens?

MARTIN: Isn't their contention that these families sold the land voluntarily, or that they just don't want to deal with it at all?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes to both. But, I mean, in Forsyth County there was a belief and a perception or a notion perpetuated by a historian, a local historian that African-Americans sold the land. Now some did. But, you know, I'm sure they sold short because they were told that they had to get out of town. But as in the case of the Stricklands, they discovered through a tracing of deeds that property belonging to one of their ancestors was actually, I'll say stolen, but the legal term is that, was acquired through adverse possession.

MARTIN: The family members, the descendants of folks who were banished from their land, what do they want to see happen now?

Prof. WILLIAMS: I would say they all share in common the Stricklands in Georgia, the Browns in Missouri, what they've all shared in common is that they would like an acknowledgement that this happened.

MARTIN: How would you like people to receive your film?

Prof. WILLIAMS: I think the film is a fair, accurate, honest, truthful depiction of what happened. Black and white have equal opportunities to express themselves, to express their positions, their feelings. And while African-Americans are the obvious victims, the African-Americans in this film are not always heroic. They are complicated. Their demands, their wishes are threatening.

So what I really hoped for is that when people watch this film, they become sensitized to what has happened to African-Americans in this country. Just think about it. If you own land and you get to keep that land, you have the option and the opportunity to pass it down generation to generation to generation. Wealth is accumulated that way. Stability's created that way.

So it is my wish that people will see themselves in the film, but more importantly, see and become sensitized to how the other side feels and thinks.

MARTIN: But what do you say to those who might see themselves in another part of the story and say, I had nothing to do with this?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Well...

MARTIN: This was not something I sanctioned or agree with, and I should not be displaced from my, what is now my home because of decisions that I had nothing to do with. What would you say to that?

Prof. WILLIAMS: Well, I don't think somebody should simply be displaced, especially if they had nothing to do with it. That's not what this an advocacy for. I think there are mechanisms for repair, and I'll offer one. It's fanciful, but bear with me. I think that the United States should create a reparations tax fund for these instances of racial cleansing or banishments. Now if you're a white landowner in Forsyth County and you wish to sell your land, you offer that land for sale to an African-American descendant who was banished from that community.

But they have to purchase it at market value. So the person who's living on the land who had nothing to do with what happened 100 years ago is not penalized. The African-American, if they cannot afford to pay market value, they get to take from the reparations tax fund. We will - the result, we will rediversify, reintegrate these communities. We will reconcile what has happened in the past, and nobody is penalized.

MARTIN: Mr. Williams, finally, you've done a number of films, as I mentioned, about kind of our tortured racial history in this country. I'm wondering how making this film affected you or affected your thinking about something you've already thought so much about.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Because I wanted to do a film that really sought to put forth ideas for reconciliation and repair, I have to say that, ironically, I ended up making a film that does not conclude with any specific means for reparation or repair. So, in some sense, the impact of this film and all of my films is that - is to feel that this is a very difficult wound to heal, this, as you said, this sort of tortured history of race relations in this country.

It has, in many ways, reinvigorated my determination to keep working at this. But it also reminded me of how sobering and how challenging and how difficult it is. I would conclude with this remark. I always, in the face of this kind of work, think of Sweet Honey and the Rock and I think of their song, "We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest." And that's all I can do.

MARTIN: Marco Williams, award-winning filmmaker, professor at the Tisch School of Arts at New York University. His new documentary is called "Banished." It airs tonight on the PBS program, "Independent Lens." You'll want to check local listings for details. Professor Williams, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. WILLIAMS: Thank you.

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