In 1921, the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa was brutally attacked by a white mob. Thirty-five blocks of the thriving community were burned over the course of 24 hours, and as many as 300 were murdered. In one act of brutality and racism, years of Black affluence were destroyed. Even the memory was stolen, as Tulsa denied the attack for decades, and no justice was ever served.
Upon the uncovering of this history, Greenwood has become famous for what once was. It has been dubbed Black Wall Street, and its story is finally being told. Greenwood wasn’t the only place of Black community building whose history was lost for years, however. The “Black Wall Street Athens County” documentary series hopes to make Athens’ Black history once again known.
The docuseries is a collaborative effort between the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, a local volunteer group dedicated to preserving Athens’ Black history — specifically the Mount Zion Church, 32 W. Carpenter St., and Bent Street Films, a Black-owned international production company.
The first of three half-hour installments is set to air Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Athena Cinema, 20 S. Court St. A reception will follow the screening across the street at the School of Film, 31 S. Court St. This first film will give an overview of the buildings and history, and it will focus on how Southeast Ohio was once a hub for Black settlers.
“There were Black Wall Streets all over the country where folks came in and took over mainly Black neighborhoods,” Trevellya Ford-Ahmed, communications and media director for the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society and the series’ producer, said.
The film serves as an extension of the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, furthering the local effort to preserve Black history and particularly the church. The group hopes to raise enough funds for a full renovation of the space into a community center through donations and fundraising, including an auction for a painting at the post-screening reception.
“We hope to use it as a vehicle to bring attention to this group of dedicated community people that are rushing in, trying to save this particular building,” Ford-Ahmed said.
Yaphet Jackman founded Bent Street Films with his wife, Nicole Hector-Jackman. The pair took on the project and helped with shooting and some post-production.
“I was completely clueless coming into this project,” Jackman said. “And I think the reason why we jumped onto the project as much as possible … (was) because we were fascinated at the fact that we were walking by so much history in Athens every day, and we were quite clueless as to what we were surrounded by and this rich history that existed.”
The films seek to educate people about Black-owned businesses and historical sites that are now often walked by with little thought or knowledge of what had stood.
“There were Black communities,” Ford-Ahmed said. “What's there now? A plaque. There are hundreds and thousands of plaques to commemorate where our history once stood.”
Autumn Whiteman, a sophomore studying Spanish education, said she knew very little about the Black history of Athens but would love to be educated.
“Getting to know where we’re from in our own history and where we are right now I think is really important,” Whiteman said. “I would love to watch something like that and gain that insight into learning why Athens is the way that it is, what made us.”
In attempting to tell these stories, the group began filming in June 2021 and began editing toward the start of 2022. Jackman said most of the filming was relatively simple, but they faced some difficulty uncovering historic materials.
“We're trying to talk about the 18th century — the 17th/18th century — that didn't have a lot of photographs, especially with people of color,” Jackman said. “We had our challenges in that regard, but I think what we've been able to come up with will do justice.”
Once photographs were tracked down, it was even more difficult to find other archives. The team tracked down audiovisual pieces in basements and did extensive research.
“When you're doing a film, you don't want it to look like a slideshow, where you’re just showing the pictures and the interview and the pictures,” Ford-Ahmed said.
As the first film wraps up, work will move onto films two and three. The second film will focus on the Albany Enterprise Academy, where many prominent Black figures in the region studied.
The third film will focus on the impact of Edward Berry. HangOverEasy stands on the spot of the once-famed Berry Hotel, owned by Berry, a hotel so well-regarded, Ford-Ahmed said, that Franklin Roosevelt visited it. However, she hopes to also tell the story of his wife, Mattie Madry.
“They say Edward Berry would go and collect the men's clothes in the daytime when they were out and bring it to Mattie,” Ford-Ahmed said. “She would sew on the buttons that were missing, etc., and put it back in the sewing room. They credit that to Ed Berry. Now, come on, we know who said, ‘Ed up to that room and say bring those clothes down.’ I can hear it now.”
Jackman said he hopes to continue to be a part of the project for the second and third films. He wants to continue to help educate about the unseen Black history of southeast Ohio.
“Hopefully, the series really brings to light how important it is to be aware of the history and to preserve the history so that you don't make the same mistakes that your forefathers or whomever else have made,” Jackman said.
Ford-Ahmed said she believes the heavily-wooded area and access to the Ohio border caused many formerly enslaved people to settle in southeastern Ohio. She wants the people of Athens to know who helped build the city.
“We're learning even more now in the area that we're living in how much more history exists over there with founding fathers and people of color that really put their shoulder to the wheel to make things happen here in Athens,” Jackman said. “It's shedding the light to a lot of these unsung heroes that existed.”