“Maryland is very much in the South. It’s just Up South.”
This assessment, made by Dr. Walter Arthur Harris Gill, may not completely encapsulate segregation in pre and post-Brown v. Board Maryland and Baltimore, but it is part of a chorus of contemporary voices that offer a new critique of Baltimore race relations then and now.
Gill is joined with other Black educators, authors and a federal judge, in a new documentary that premiered Feb. 16 at Towson University’s Stephens Hall Theatre.
“Voices of Baltimore: Life Under Segregation” is a joint venture of three Towson University professors, co-directed and co-produced by Drs. Gary A. Homana, Morna McDermott McNulty, and Franklin Campbell Jones.
Homana, the executive producer was inspired to begin the project after a classroom visit by Evelyn J. Chatmon, the first Black woman Assistant Superintendent for Baltimore County Schools.
“She was talking about her life growing up under Jim Crow in Baltimore,” Homana told the AFRO. “I left that classroom, that hour, just with this striking sense of power in her story, that really touched my being. It was really transformational. I had this realization that these were stories of people who were in their 80s, that lived through this and they needed to be preserved and archived.”
Divided into four acts, the documentary follows its subjects as they are enlisted to integrate schools or stage sit-ins in Baltimore businesses. It then explores the unique qualities of Baltimore’s block-by-block segregation. It compares the ubiquities of Black balconies and “colored” entrances in the Deep South to Whites only establishments of urban centers like Baltimore.
Treopia Green Washington had “a Jim Crow experience in Baltimore that I never had in Little Rock,” she said in the film. Washington is the sister of Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine and is currently Director of Special Initiatives, College of Education, Bowie State University, where another screening will be held.
The subjects then look back on their individual drive and the demands of the community that they excel. Lastly, the documentary evaluates the conditions of Baltimore schools now compared to what was and what could have been.
The film does not advocate much in terms of new policy, but documents the mishandled and incomplete project of integration.
One subject, Robert M. Bell, the named litigant in Bell v. Maryland, and former Chief Judge of the Maryland Court of Appeals, gets at part of the institutional failure of desegregation when he reflects that his case prevailed on procedural grounds, rather than on the merits.
Chatmon expounded on this idea in a panel discussion after the film, when describing how she might have improved upon the integration/desegregation process, specifically addressing the prejudices and biases of White teachers.
“I would have ensured that they themselves had a good background in what slavery and Reconstruction and Jim Crow were all about,” Chatmon said. “I would have explored what their myths were about Black people… Because remember, when you are bombarded with the mythology that Black people are stupid and lazy and dumb, even the best of us, some of that goes into our DNA almost.”
McNulty told the AFRO the work was meant to foster conversation rather than advocate for particular action. During the panel discussion after the screening, audience members engaged directly with the film and its subjects.
One Towson student expressed regret at being “coddled” with a narrative of peaceful struggle for Black rights and expressed regret that issues of White violence and Black self defense were seemingly suppressed. Another audience member reached out directly to the panel for advice on how to progress.
A third lamented the dissolution of Black communities to facilitate integration.
“[Teachers] are coming from the suburbs and they don’t know our children,” she said. “And I think to a degree, segregation was pretty good. Because you had people that were in the church, you had your beauticians, you had your morticians, it was not equal, but Baltimore had so much to be proud of.”
No wide release date has been set to date, but the producers plan to ultimately release the film on streaming services and for free.