A hundred years ago, in communities across the U.S., white residents forced thousands of black families to flee their homes. Even a century later, these towns remain almost entirely white. BANISHED tells the story of three of these communities and their black descendants, who return to learn their shocking histories.
“My grandmother used to tell us all about the old homestead that was up in Forsyth County, which was strange to us, because we always heard that there’s no black people in Forsyth County. That’s what we were always told. There used to be a saying that we even as young kids heard, ‘Don’t let the sun go down on you in Forsyth County.’”
—Charles Wiley, Strickland family descendant
Banished vividly recovers the too-quickly forgotten history of racial cleansing in America when thousands of African Americans were driven from their homes and communities by violent, racist mobs. The film places these events in the context of present day race relations by following three concrete cases where black and white citizens warily explore if there is common ground for reconciliation over these expulsions. Banished raises this larger question: will the United States ever make meaningful reparations for the human rights abuses suffered, then and now, against its African American citizens? Can reconciliation between the races be possible without them?
Between 1860 and 1920 hundreds of U.S. counties expelled their black residents. The pattern was depressingly similar in almost all cases. The counties tended to have small, defenseless black populations. A black man was rumored to have assaulted a white woman, was lynched and then white rioters attacked black neighborhoods with guns and firebombs. Few black property owners had time to sell their properties nor dared return to repossess them. Whites could then illegally assume ownership of them. African Americans not only lost their hard-won homes, farms and businesses, but saw their communities and families dispersed and their very right to exist violated. The film reveals that even one hundred years later, these racially cleansed communities tend to remain all-white bastions of separatism, sometimes harboring active klaverns of the Ku Klux Klan. Another California Newsreel release, Trouble Behind documents the same process in Corbin, Kentucky, home of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Banished presents a fascinating detective story through yellowed newspaper archives, registries of deeds, photos from treasured family albums and dimly recalled stories of grandparents and great-grandparents who lived through these traumatic events to reconstruct a dramatic record of the expulsions. The film features black families determined to go to any length to reconstruct their families’ past and gain some justice for their ancestors and themselves. It interviews dedicated local journalists, who braved community opposition, to research the banishments in-depth and force their readers to confront their towns’ past and present. Banished was itself co-produced by award-winning documentary filmmaker Marco Williams and the Center for Investigative Reporting, widely respected for its in-depth, uncompromising coverage of social justice issues.
Banished first visits Forsyth County, Georgia, now a prosperous suburban sprawl north of Atlanta. In 1912, African Americans were violently driven out; today there is still a saying among black folk: “Don’t let the sun go down on you in Forsyth County.” In 1987 a bi-racial Martin Luther King Celebration tour was organized through the all-white county. Buses filled with marchers were met by angry mobs, led by seven white supremacist groups and a melee ensued. The governor set up a commission to investigate the incident and to respond to black calls that the stolen land be returned to them. We meet the Strickland family as they return to the 2000 acres once owned by their great grandfather and they restore the neglected family burial ground as a “monument to the past.” Although the commission found no deeds for the passage of land from half of the expelled black owners to whites, the white members denied that their community was responsible for any recompense and that statute of limitations had run out for any claims against illegal occupation. The Stricklands were denied not only their land but even the closure that the acknowledgement of past injustices might have given them.
The small, peaceful town of Pierce City, Missouri, banished its African American population in1901; it is still all-white. In 2006, a descendant of one of the expelled families, Charles Brown, decided to exhume the body of his great-grandfather buried in Pierce City and inter it in the family plot in Springfield. He met bureaucratic stone-walling and what emerged as a pattern of denial and avoidance on the part of whites. But the soft-spoken, reasonable Brown persisted and finally convinced the local coroner and a former mayor to help him rebury his ancestor. But when he unexpectedly asked Pierce City to pay the bill as a token of regret for the banishment, the whites felt betrayed, the victims of a “bait and switch.” They offered a transparently hypocritical response: the crimes of 1901 were so horrific that no dollar amount could ever compensate, only trivialize them. Sherrilyn Ifill, Professor of Law at the University of Maryland, stresses that reparations are a continuing process, providing recompense whenever and however it becomes possible.
Finally, Banished travels to Harrison, Arkansas, a small city where a faith-based process for “truth and reconciliation” was initiated, perhaps inspired by the South African example. In 1909, a white mob lynched a black man and then expelled the town’s black citizens. It is still all-white, a Klan stronghold with the Confederate flag flying over the Chamber of Commerce and a refuge for retirees who “who want to live without black people.” A Taskforce for Race Relations was formed to deal with this situation in a “substantive” way. It established two college scholarships for black students to attract them to the local schools, named after Aunt Vine, a maid, who was the only black person allowed to remain in Harrison after 1901. But one of the scholarship recipients observes that Harrison is still a “sundown town;” “black people won’t spend the night in Harrison.” The Taskforce hired a consultant, David Zimmerman, a local historian, who suggested they erect a monument in the city square acknowledging that nearby there once was a flourishing African American community which was destroyed by a white mob. This would provide a public space for acknowledgement, healing and reconciliation but even this modest plan was met with objections.
Banished is as much a film about forgetting as remembering. In its understated way, it allows its white subjects to reveal a collective repression of their communities’ racial history through selective memory, outright denial and rationalization. While African Americans seem compelled to remember, confront and redress the crimes of racism, many whites want to ignore them, not only to reject any responsibility for them but, more importantly, any responsibility for rectifying them. They do not seem to recognize that a free conscience can begin only with remorse. The theft of property, wealth, community and hope must at least be admitted and repaired to whatever extent practical. Racial cleansing is still rampant in the U.S., it just takes more subtle forms: red-lining, redevelopment, gentrification, gated communities, all-white suburbs, the Katrina Diaspora. This powerful but not rhetorical film makes evident that any reconciliation, any honest healing between the races, will only be possible once denial, the willful banishing of our racial past, has itself been banished.
Because it is both a scrupulously researched history film and a probing study of the process of racial reconciliation, Banished is a valuable resource for teaching American History, the Jim Crow era, race relations, cultural competency, prejudice reduction, conflict resolution, and restorative justice as well as journalistic ethics.
1. Forsyth County, Georgia
2. Search for Family Deeds
3. Journalistic Research
4. Pierce City, Missouri
5. Harrison, Arkansas
6. Fragile Truth: Pierce City and Forsyth County
Banished is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting, Two Tone Productions, the Independent Television Service and the National Black Programming Consortium with major funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Marco Williams is a producer, director, writer, cinematographer, and film educator. He is currently a faculty member at New York University in the Undergraduate Film and Television Department.Some of his most notable work includes the documentary In Search of Our Fathers (1992) for which he received the Silver Apple at the National Educational Film and Video Festival. Williams’ documentary, Two Towns of Jasper, won a Gotham Documentary Achievement Award, a George Foster Peabody Award, and an Alfred I duPont Silver Baton.