KSU film to air on PBS tonight

Steve Bushong

Documentary produced for class addresses area racial tensions in the 1950s, ’60s

The stories of racial segregation in Warren during the ’50s and ’60s have been videotaped, edited and, tonight, will be broadcast on PBS in the Kent State student- and faculty-produced documentary “Invisible Struggles: Stories of Northern Segregation.”

The one-hour film has arrived after years of work, beginning with a class in American civil rights in Fall 2002 at the Kent State Trumbull campus.

Professor Kenneth Bindas and assistant professor Molly Merryman created the class, which combined elements of civil rights history and video-making. After some study, students were given video cameras to collect for themselves an oral history of segregation in Warren.

With some luck and hard work, 13 people were found who were willing to tell their stories and were interviewed by the class of 12 students.

The students then edited their own video, though many had never even operated a video camera, and the documentary began to take shape.

No one knew how successful the film would become.

Interviews with history

Kathy Boggess, a non-traditional student, interviewed Evelina Smith, associate professor at the Trumbull campus, for what was just a class project.

“She asked the right questions, and I gave her the right answers,” Smith said.

Smith was one of the first black librarians in Warren.

In the documentary, one trying aspect of life she recalls is being served second, when she was first in line.

“That was typical at the time,” she says in the film.

Boggess and Smith had known each other two years prior to the interview. The stories flowed easily between them – they already had a sense of friendship.

But their relationship was atypical compared to those of the rest of the class, which was mostly young, white adults.

In order for students to get good answers to their questions, Bindas knew a sense of trust had to be developed. A four-tier set of questions was used, with the questions becoming increasingly sensitive, he said.

No questions asked the interviewees about their experiences with racism or segregation directly.

“We had questions, but we let them tell the story,” said Angela Gianakos, a 2004 criminal justice graduate.

The interviews were held at the Trumbull campus. Students worked in pairs – one operating the camera while the other asked questions.

“I was nervous going into it,” Gianakos said. “This is someone who would be telling painful life experiences.”

But everything seemed to work, she said. And after years of editing and re-editing interviews, B-roll footage, narration and photographs, the documentary is set to air, along with the panel discussion from the film’s Thursday night premier at W.D. Packard Music Hall in Warren.

“Invisible Struggles” and the accompanying panel discussion could potentially be seen by 4.6 million viewers.

Not just a class

Paula Johnson, a non-traditional exploratory major, said she didn’t realize the documentary would become such a big deal.

“I just thought it was another class,” she said. “You go and get an A.”

Johnson ended up not only giving enough effort to receive an A, but was also a major source of contacts for interviews and became the documentary’s narrator.

Both of Johnson’s parents were civil rights activists, and both were interviewed for the film. And at 52, Johnson remembers northern segregation firsthand.

She said the invisible struggle in the north was just as difficult as the better-known and more blatant racism in the south.

“Psychologically, they’re both brutal,” Johnson said.

She recalled a story of a black family moving into a white neighborhood. Days later, for-sale signs would go up in the neighbor’s front yards – it was no coincidence.

“That’s the invisible struggle,” Johnson said. “It affects your self-esteem, it’s depressing.”

According to a press release, Merryman’s goal from the beginning was to create a documentary, but it wasn’t until she saw the power and honesty in what the student’s had captured that it became a serious project.

In the end, Bindas hopes the students in the class and those who watch the documentary come away with one thing: “That there is power in listening,” he said.

“Invisible Struggles” airs tonight at 9 p.m., Tuesday at 12:30 a.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. on PBS.

Contact minority affairs reporter Steve Bushong at [email protected].