On February 19, 2008 (check local listings) PBS proudly presents the much awaited documentary, “Banished: America’s Ethnic Cleansings”, a film by Marco Williams, which chronicles the hidden history of America’s racist pogroms against black people in the early years of the last century.
The film concentrates on three towns that expelled their black citizens, murdering many black people, destroying their personal possessions—and stealing those expelled black citizen’s property. Those three towns are Harrison, Arkansas; Forsyth County, Georgia; and Pierce City, Missouri. Two black families are profiled, two families who lost relatives, property, and community connnections from those violent expulsions of ethnic cleansing. The film contemplates questions of privilege, responsibility, denial, healing, reparations and identity.
The Strickland family whose ancestors lived in Forsyth County, Georgia seek the reparations for land taken during the forced expulsion of their black relatives.
The Strickland family’s ancestors were expelled from Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912. Before that, Leola Strickland’s ancestors had owned a 37-acre homestead there. In 2008, the property, which includes a family burial ground, is owned by white residents. But looking through court/county records, no records of property being sold by blacks exist, with many black people having their land taken by what is known as adverse possession, a means of acquiring title to land without purchasing it. Although adverse possession is legal, it becomes morally questionable given the circumstances of blacks running from the only homes they have ever known to save their lives from whites who would kill any black who dared remain in the home in which that family lived for generations. The inhumane duress under which black people were forced to part with their property does not override the moral implications of whites simply stealing the rightful property of black people who were forced to flee with their lives or stay and die. Needless to say, many families, like the Stricklands’ ancestors, had no choice but to leave their property, fleeing with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, leaving behind property that today is lived on by whites who have no legal, nor moral right, to possession of that property. At the least, the present white owners of property that was owned by blacks forced out of Forsyth County, that property should either be returned to the descendants of the Strickland family, or at least reparations should be paid by Forsyth County to those family descendants, for the value of that land at today’s real estate prices.
The Brown family of Pierce City, Missouri, Charles Brown, Jr.’s family, the Cobbs, were banished from Pierce City, Missouri in 1901. Their property was wrongfully taken during the expulsion of Pierce City’s ethnic cleansing of its black citizens. Charles Brown, designed his own creative form of reparation—he wishes to disinter the remains of his great-grandfather, who was buried there before the banishment. Here he speaks in his own words how people across America respond to what was done to his family and many other black families of Pierce City, when he attends screenings of the film Banished:
“The making of BANISHED has stimulated a lot of interest in Pierce City and what happened to my family in 1901. I have attended several screenings at film festivals around the country. A lot of people express horror and outrage. Some speak of disgust. Some even ask me if Pierce City satisfied my monetary request. No one has defended Pierce City and tried to justify the actions of the Pierce City residents and their neighbors’ actions in 1901.
My family, as American citizens in 2007, does not understand why no one in our government on the local, state or national levels has stepped up to the plate to try to address the things that happened to our family and the rest of the African Americans living in Pierce City in 1901. By this not happening, the chain of custody has not been addressed.
My hope is that someone steps up to the plate and rectifies this wrong. I was trying to work through all of this on a small scale by asking them to reimburse our family $2,600, our expenses incurred to move my great-grandfather. I feel they missed a great opportunity to move in the right direction. It was not about the money. We were demanding respect in the name of our family, asking Pierce City to bring this dark secret from their past out in the open, address it and work through it.
I have been researching my family for six years. I found out that my father’s mother was one of nine children born to James and Arminta Cobb in Tennessee. They migrated to Pierce City, Missouri and the family collectively purchased an eight-room house and contributed to the growth of Pierce City. Two of the males worked as Pullman Porters on the railroad. James Cobb, Sr. died of dropsy in 1898. He was the only one I could not find in the 1900 Census.
My brother, James Brown, had heard from our father about some kind of an incident that happened to the family while they were in Pierce City. He didn’t know the particulars so my brother went to Pierce City looking for any evidence to indicate that our family was involved in a riot of some sort. He found, through the managing editor of a local newspaper, an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch dated August 25, 1901. This article describes what happened to the African Americans living in Pierce City during that time. There were interviews with my family and also a picture showing them at a relative’s two-room home in Springfield, Missouri. There were over 200 bullet holes in the Cobb residence.
I found out James Cobb, Sr. was buried in the Pierce City cemetery. After the incident, no one in the family was allowed to visit his grave to place a wreath on his grave or just to visit with his grave. The house was not even an issue. If you weren’t allowed in the town, how could you stay current with your payments? Our home was sold for non-payment quickly after the incident. It was stated in the records that the Cobb home was sold for non-payment.
The incident mentioned in BANISHED shows glaring problems with our system. The Cobb property, as well as the property of every other person of color who owned property in Pierce City, was stolen through adverse possession. The government did not protect the African American citizens of Pierce City on that day in 1901 and did not protect the chain of custody.
I am upset because the town has chosen not to openly admit wrongdoing by their ancestors. The town has been collecting taxes on our property since 1902. How can Pierce City say they bear no responsibility? I am hurt, confused and outraged. The rest of my family feels the same way I do.”
I ask 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.
How can America go about acknowledging her violent racist past and when will she finally acknowledge the process that recociliation addresses, the reconciliation this country so desparately needs to finally start to heal itself from the legacy of racist hatred against her most defenseles citizens?
BANISHED puts a human face on a savage part of America’s history. The film reminds us that though legalized segregation and slavery no longer exist on paper, still the effects of a system that allowed, condoned, and rewarded the vicious hatred of its black citizens, still lives with us all.
That America has not owned up to this hated part of her past leaves open wounds that continue to fester racial divisions between blacks and whites. Reparations of land that was wrongfully taken is contentious and certainly will be highly fought against by present day whites of these three towns, but at what point does white America finally decide that enough is enough of her callous contempt and disregard for her black citizens? When will America have the heart, the mind, the will—the resolve to come to terms with this most horrific part of her past?
The reparations movement… holds out the promise of the reconstruction of the African American community, the reconstruction of the morality of the white community, reconstruction of the entire American community.”
—Alfred Brophy, law professor
And those things are very hard to get back.”
The question of reparations is for many a controversial and unanswerable one. How would these towns repay the descendants of those black people whose land was stolen via the adverse possession law? What would could possibly be a fair compensation or way to make amends for wrongdoings generations and decades ago?
The Strickland family’s ancestors were expelled from Forsyth County, Georgia in 1912. The family’s property, including an old burial ground, is now on white-owned land. Local newspapers from as recently as 1987 claim that banished black residents had sold their land to whites, but land deeds and tax rolls show that black-owned land was never sold, but instead claimed by white residents under adverse possession—an act of acquiring the title to a property without having to pay for it.
The loss of land due to racial violence or discrimination has been devastating for many black Americans in the twentieth century. Even though the whites that now live on the Strickland family’s land today were not personally responsible for its adverse possession, should those descendants at least take some responsibility for the actions of their ancestors? Is it at least fair and right for people to see that they benefit wrongly and immorally from the actions of their ancestors, such as land obtained through adverse possession? Who now has the “right” to the Strickland family land? Should not the Strickland family have the right to land that belonged to their family? Or at the very least, monetray reparations for land stolen from their ancestors?
Charles Brown, Jr.’s ancestors, the Cobbs, were violently expelled from Pierce City, Missouri, in 1901. When he learns that his great-grandfather was still buried in the Pierce City cemetery, Brown decides to disinter and move the body. He asks Pierce City to cover the cost of the disinterment as a form of reparations, but the town refuses.
When filmmaker Marco Williams speaks to Pierce City Mayor Mark Peters, Peters claims that money can’t heal anything or fix Brown’s hurt. How much money can repay the black families’s decendants? How can any amount of money ever make up for lives and property lost? For entire communties destroyed?
A century after its black American residents were driven out of town by a white mob, Harrison, Arkansas is trying to confront its legacy of racism. The town forms a Community Task Force on Race Relations and discusses whether or not actions such as placing a public marker to commemorate the violence against the expelled black community are an adequate form of healing.
During a meeting of the Task Force, members talk about the visibility and effectiveness of erecting a physical marker. Is a marker enough for the wrongs done, wrongs which have left a legacy of division and a town where the evidence of black life was wiped away as if that black existence in towns such as Pierce City, Forsyth County and Harrison never existed? Would such a monument be enough? Could it ever be enough? Would it be more of a slap in the face—a concrete marker that does not begin to speak of the horrific injustice done to black citizens who made their homes in a town they thought they would always have a place in? What about the town’s efforts to create a scholarship for black students or form partnerships with local black churches? How can this in any way make up for all that was taken from the innocent black families forced by violence from their homes? Why should the descendants of those black citizens driven from their rightful property have to settle for so less compared to what was vicously taken from their black ancestors? Personally, I consider the offering of scholarships as insulting. There are already scholarships set aside specifically for blacks and this mealy-mouthed offering of scholarships is just a sorry don’t give a damn response and the easy, cheap and non-moral way out of a time of horrific holocaust atrocities committed against black people. And as for forming partnerships with black churches, this is the ultimate insult when it was white churches that preached the sermons of racist white supremacy every Sunday when white males who the days before congregating in their churches, had raped many little innocent 7-, 9-, 10-, 13-, and 15-year-old black girls during that week and right along with them were white females who laid down with black men and then jumped up and cried raped to get that innocent black man tortured, castrated and burned alive. No. Ante up white people of these banishment towns and give reparations and justice to the descendants of all these wronged black former citizens of these now all-white towns. By reparations I mean either in the land returned to them, or, reparations in money by 21ST Century prices for the value of the land stolen by vicious thievery from those many innocent black citizens.
BANISHED is a film that only just now begins to scratch the surface of America’s unknown history of her sadistic mistreatment of her black citizens and all that she has brutally taken from them.
Black citizens still continue to live in a state of banishment in this country. The legacy of four hundred years of racist atrocities still live with us in the present. America needs to come out of the mists of hate and fear to set foot on the path of giving justice and retribution to her black citizens. That much at least she can do in acknowledging the wrongs that were done to her black citizens. Accepting and confronting the painful past is the only way America can and will create a more peaceful future for herself—and for all of her citizens.
PBS: BANISHED: AMERICA’S ETHNIC CLEANSINGS:
“BANISHED: LEAVE, OR DIE”:
“OF REPARATIONS AND AMERICA’S ETHNIC CLEANSING OF BLACK AMERICA:
ROSEWOOD MASSACRE REMEMBERED BY SURVIVOR: