Tuesday, Feb. 19, 10 p.m.
WFYI (Channel 20)
The Independent Lens film “Banished” starts out as a history lesson. The premise: From the 1860s through the 1920s, dozens of American towns and counties (including Washington County, Ind.) told black residents to leave or be killed. So they fled their land and never went back to sell it because they were too scared.
But after sharing those details, filmmaker Marco Williams subtly and deftly turns the subject to the present day. He tells three stories of black families hoping for various forms of reparations from the communities that expelled their ancestors. At that point, “Banished” becomes a fascinating look at contemporary race relations.
Williams takes us to Forsyth County, Ga. —where the African-American population went from 1,098 in 1912 to 30 in 1920 — then Pierce City, Mo., and Harrison, Ark., two other communities with a shameful past. The attitudes and outcomes he documents are nothing short of extraordinary.
In Georgia, the governor appointed a biracial panel to decide whether families like the Stricklands, who lost 80 acres after fleeing in 1912, should receive reparations. The black panel members said yes. White members — including a lawyer who had a hand in some of the transactions in which the black families’ land was transferred to white owners — said no.
In Missouri, a man named Charles Brown wanted to exhume his great-grandfather’s remains from Pierce City and move them to Springfield, Mo. He thought the Pierce city fathers should pay the costs, given that his ancestors were run out of town in 1901. You’ll have to watch the film to see what happens.
Then there’s Harrison, which seems to be in an emotional tug of war between its past and present. On one hand, you have a portion of the population trying to make things right by offering a minority scholarship and being more welcoming to black families. On the other, it remains a stronghold for the Ku Klux Klan.
Filmmaker Williams, who is black, goes to visit Klansman Thom Robb, whose memorabilia includes photos of cross burnings. (He calls them cross lightings — “an old Scottish tradition,” he says.) Pointing to an empty lot across the street from Robb’s house, Williams asks, “If I moved over there, just across the way, would I be welcome?”
Robb says, “I wouldn’t be happy … because I want to preserve our community, our culture.”
Then Williams talks to a retiree named Bob Scott, who says he moved to Harrison for two reasons: “The low cost of living, the low cost of real estate and, probably more importantly than anything else, the lack of blacks.”
Williams lets that go without comment. And really, what could he say? But at a time when a black man has a legitimate chance to be the next president of the United States, it’s still astonishing to hear such bigotry.
While it’s clear where Williams stands, he does a superb job laying out these stories without hammering the point. But it should be noted that as good a job as he does, it wouldn’t have been possible without the primary research done by newspaper reporters. Foremost of those is Elliot Jaspin, a Cox Newspapers reporter who documented the way whites in Forsyth County came to own land there through “adverse possession” — essentially taking title to property without buying it.
This may be going off point a bit, but the kind of work Jaspin does is what makes daily newspapers such a vital medium. To watch them being systematically gutted by greedy owners trying to maintain 30 percent profit margins is a subject worthy of another Williams film.