A Must See Film: Banished

by Guest Contributor Tami, originally published at What Tami Said

(In the video above, “Banished” filmmaker Marco Williams talks about the documentary.)

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.

In Forsyth County, Georgia, where a thousand black residents were expelled, the film explores the question of land fraudulently taken, and follows some descendants in their quest to uncover the real story of their family’s land. In Pierce City, Missouri, a man has designed his own creative form of reparation—he wishes to disinter the remains of his great-grandfather, who was buried there before the banishment. And in Harrison, Arkansas, home to the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, a white community struggles with their town’s legacy of hate.

By investigating this little-known chapter in American history, BANISHED also takes a contemporary look at the legacy of racial cleansing. Through conversations with current residents and the descendants of those who were driven out, the film contemplates questions of privilege, responsibility, denial, healing, reparations and identity.

What can be done to redress past injustices? What is the ongoing impact of the expulsions on families and communities today? In the stories of black families whose land and livelihood were stolen, the film illustrates the limits of the American legal system and the need for creative forms of repair. By introducing these families and the white communities who forced them out, BANISHED raises the question of responsibility for past wrongs and what is involved in righting them. (SOURCE: PBS Independent Lens Web Site)

Thank God for DVR. I missed “Banished” when it ran on PBS’ Independent Lens during Black History Month this year, but I recorded it and finally watched this weekend.

EVERYONE should see this documentary that investigates a little-known period of ethnic cleansing in the United States: Roughly 1860 to 1920, when several counties and cities across the United States, including Forsyth County, Georgia, Pierce City, Missouri, and Washington County, Indiana, purged their black residents through violence and intimidation (See a “banishment” map here.).

This is not just a film about racism. Underneath the searing past and present racism uncovered by the film, is the reality of property ownership in America. While the ethnic purges left psychic scars on the black victims and the towns they left, most of which remain all-white to this day, it also robbed black families of their wealth–wealth that could have been passed on for generations. It is telling to watch one family stand in the middle of land once owned by their black ancestors in Forsyth County, Georgia, surrounded by McMansions and pricey development.

As I watched “Banished,” a story recently told to me by my mother remained in the back of my mind. In the early 1900s, my mother’s paternal grandfather Jake (my great-grandfather) wanted very much to acquire land for his family in Talladega County, Alabama. It was very difficult for blacks to buy land, particularly where he desired–many acres not far from the only highway. Jake saved his money and entrusted it to a kind white man who went to purchase the land for him. It was quite an accomplishment, but the family continued to live in fear of being banished from their home. My grandfather and his siblings recall their father often sitting up all night on the front porch with his shotgun to protect his family and his livelihood. Most of my great-grandfather’s land remained in the family for nearly a century. Some of it is still in the family. On my father’s side, my aunt’s family still farms the 300+ acres that my great-great-grandfather, born a slave, was able to purchase. In fact, the family has been on the land so long that the road that runs past the farmland, once a dusty rural route, now bears our name. Land and property mean something. In this society, they are symbols of work and life achievement, and they are wealth and power.

Watching “Banished” changed my position on reparations. I have long been ambivalent on the issue of “reparations for slavery,” thinking of reparations as just checks in the mail to all black people to make things whole. But now I understand more fully. There are many methods of reparations, as you will hear “Banished” filmmaker Marco Williams say in the clip below. There are public apologies, monuments and money, for instance. In the case of descendants of banished families, there is a clear way to quantify what was lost and who lost it. The victims of this documented terror and thievery should be compensated. Hear what the descendants of banished families and current residents think of reparations here.

Hopefully, PBS will re-air this wonderful film. In the meantime, “Banished” is available on Netflix, but appears to be out-of-stock on Amazon.

UPDATE: A great link on sundown towns from reader Black Women Blow the Trumpet.