Banished From Home

A new documentary considers reparations and suggests how little has changed in more than a century.

By Alex Jung May 01, 2008

IN HIS NEW DOCUMENTARY Banished, Black filmmaker Marco Williams weaves together a willfully forgotten American past from yellowed newspaper articles and oral histories. The omitted grievance is this: for decades after the Civil War, white Americans drove out their Black neighbors to create all-white enclaves in more than a dozen counties across the country. In many cases, the white townspeople would accuse a Black man of raping a white woman, lynch him and threaten more of the same if the Black families did not leave. The land that Black families left behind was often not sold, but rather taken by whites as their own.

For the contemporary citizens of these still-white towns, communal memory takes on a fascinating life of its own, reshaping history in hushed tones and public disavowal. The memories of the banished are markedly different; shaped by displacement, they are fragmented and individualized, based more on a grandparent’s tale or a newspaper article rather than a collective sense of loss. It is when these two collide that the central tension, articulated by a white pastor, emerges: “How do you make reconciliation with someone who’s no longer there?” Or, what do you do when they’re standing in front of you?

The documentary has three acts, divided by time and space, moving from Forsyth, Georgia, to Pierce City, Missouri, and ending in Harrison, Arkansas. All are sites of racial “cleansings,” and all grapple, with limited degrees of success, with the question of atonement. The film begins in Forsyth and Pierce City through the eyes of curious reporters who unearth their towns’ ugly histories, triggering communal grumbling. In Forsyth, the Stricklands, a Black family, are led by the exhortations of matriarch Leola Strickland Evans to discover that her old yarns were correct—their ancestor owned a large swath of land in what is now the suburbs. In Missouri, James Brown, living in St. Louis, learns about his family’s banishment from Pierce City in a roundabout way—through someone who, upon learning his family is from Pierce City, tells him how “sorry” she is. Remaining in Pierce City is the body of his great-grandfather, James Cobb, in an unmarked grave. What follows is a long-winded and bureaucratic ordeal Brown undergoes to get the body exhumed and reburied in St. Louis.

The portrayal of Harrison, Arkansas, is more of an anthropological take, because there is no aggrieved family knocking on the town’s door. What disturbs the townsfolk is having the reputation as a breeding ground for hate groups.

Harrison’s KKK members claim they speak for the town’s white Christians. The concerned citizens, disturbed by such white supremacist proclamations, conduct a National Day of Prayer to acknowledge past deeds. They form a Task Force for Race Relations that brainstorms and occasionally acts on ideas like creating a college scholarships for students of color. While they are well-intentioned, they clearly opt for a token gesture rather than a paradigm-shifting act.

Williams is primarily a documentarian. His last two major works, In Search of Our Fathers and Two Towns of Jasper, meditated on race. The former, about Black families, began from a personal experience (he filmed meeting his father for the first time), while the latter studied the psychology of a town (he teamed with a white director, Whitney Dow, to study Black and white reactions to a murder trial). In Banished, his concern is not really with lining up the historical facts as much as it is with understanding how reconciliation could happen. Should white residents feel responsible for the past? If so, how should they make amends?
Reconciliation has both an economic and a moral imperative on those who benefited from exploitation, and reparations dominates the content of the film. However, the moral imperative seethes beneath every interaction. When Williams asks the first female mayor of Pierce City, Carol Hirsch, if the descendants of those run out are owed anything, she pauses and answers, “Probably owed an apology.”

Today, Forsyth has manicured lawns peppered by signs touting homes starting at $300,000. Harrison is also a cozy home to Thom Robb, the leader of the White Knights of the KKK and other interviewed retirees like Bob Scott, who said he moved there because “probably more important than anything else, [there was] a lack of Blacks.”

The documentary is at its best when it is uncomfortable. In Forsyth, when Elliot Jaspin, the hard-nosed reporter who wrote about the racial “cleansings,” confronts Phil Bettis, a lawyer who oversaw the sales of the stolen land, the interaction is fascinating. Jaspin calls the documents used to sell the land “phony,” and Bettis replies, in uncomfortably halted speech, “Phony’s a harsh word for that” and continues to argue that, “I think it’s phony to say that I claimed title to that property if I’ve ignored my rights for almost a century,” meaning that the fault lies with the Black families for “failing” to reclaim their stolen land. Land, Williams says, is something tangible that “all Americans have some notion of.” It gives its owners and their progeny a certain financial solvency, and in turn, the landowner shapes the character of the land. Can anything else, other than the land itself, feel like just compensation? 

Any discussion of reparations returns us to that unfulfilled promise of 40 acres and a mule. Williams wants the creation of a “reparations tax” levied on all citizens. When towns like Forsyth want to sell their land, he suggests that it should go to a descendant of the family that was expelled from that land. Those unable to afford the market value can then apply to the tax fund. “You could easily say to me, ‘That’s really idealistic, it never would happen,’ and perhaps it never would,” Williams says, adding, however, that a redistribution of the land in this manner would acknowledge “that the whites who live on that property now may not have been the perpetrators…and it acknowledges that this land at one time belonged to African Americans.”

More than a commentary on the past, however, the film brings to mind modern-day banishments: the plans to raze public housing in post-Katrina New Orleans will have a similar effect that the threats and lynchings did in Forsyth, Georgia in 1912. It is the method, not the principle, that has changed over time. Why run people out with shotgun fire when now a stroke of a pen will do?
Sadly, the scattering of New Orleans residents, like those from the three towns in this film, cannot be easily undone, and like the banishments from almost a century ago, the dilemma remains: how do we get them home? 

Banished is distributed by California Newsreel.

Alex Jung is an editorial fellow with ColorLines magazine.