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Using New Media to Uncover Hidden Histories

December 11, 2006

“Mama died in April,” says first-time filmmaker, Ray Carrington III, in his digital short film, “Why These Churches?” His work recalls more than 80 churches of Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood. The combined oral history and digital photographic narrative is a remembering project for Carrington, whose father and grandfather both sang in church choirs, and whose mother, Elvia Pleasant, the subject of the story, worked nights as a registered nurse. Coming home on Sunday mornings, Pleasant, a woman who is pictured with large, round eyeglasses and a trusting smile, expected her six children to be “up, dressed and ready for church . . . all-day church,” says Carrington. When she died, “I stared at the casket and tried to make meaning of all the lessons, sermons, and songs . . . in all of the churches that I grew up in,” he adds. “Not just the large elegant ones but “the small, wood-framed ones . . . with floors that creaked.” The film is one of more than a dozen digital histories being made under the creative leadership of Carroll Parrott Blue, an award-winning filmmaker from the University of Central Florida and visiting professor at the University of Houston’s College of Education. Working in partnership with the Center for Digital Storytelling in Berkeley, California, Blue is the creative force behind, “Mapping the Third Ward in Houston: Story Work in the Face of Redevelopment,” a weekend workshop that ended yesterday. Using new media technology to create three to five-minute digital films, the gathering was an opportunity for a small group of aspiring storytellers to use the multimedia art form as a kind of educational town hall—one that will inspire grassroots development and economic revitalization for the community. In these films, archival photographs of local barbershops, schools, churches, and social gatherings are given “movement” through easy-to-master, computerized zoom techniques. Images of school trophies, church hats, little girl hair ribbons and Easter Sunday dresses, for example, are set to the rhythms of gospel music and oral narration that is recorded by the resident-filmmakers. When asked about her goals for the project, Blue, winner of a 2004 Sundance Film Festival Jury Award for “The Dawn at My Back: Memoir of a Black Texas Upbringing,” says that under federal government urban renewal programs, some 2,500 neighborhoods were bulldozed in 993 American cities during the 1950s through the early 1970s. And more than 1,600 of these demolished neighborhoods were African American. The destruction of vibrant black communities is still felt and seen, says Blue, in the economic demise of neighborhoods and the broken spirits of too many residents. Her hope is that the Third Ward project will stimulate memories of a proud past, and inspire people to imagine the neighborhood as it could be, in all its glory. In “Dear Barbara Jordan,” Texas Southern University archivist Bernard Forester writes a letter to the late congresswoman. “Was there any other woman in the 20th Century who accomplished what you did?” he asks in his voice over narration. “You were more than the first [20th Century] African American elected to the Texas State Senate” and, along with Georgia’s Andrew Young, “the first African American elected to the Congress from the Deep South,” he notes, juxtaposing images of Jordan posing with former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. “I wonder . . . what was it like in 1964, walking into an all-white, all-male Texas Senate?” Forester reveals at the end of his film that he never actually got to meet Barbara Jordan face-to-face, yet, as her archivist, he forms a growing relationship with her. He signs his letter, “Sincerely, your friend, your new friend.” The Third Ward Online Tour is scheduled for display in the summer of 2007 both on the Internet and at a location that is yet to be determined. The computer kiosk will be mounted in a recreation of Houston’s Colored Carnegie Library, the neighborhood’s first African American library that was founded in 1913, but demolished in 1963, to make way for a freeway.