Filmmaker Bonnie Boswell has an unusually close tie to her film, The Powerbroker: Whitney Young’s Fight for Civil Rights. Whitney Young, Jr., was her uncle, and his parents helped raise her. We sat down with Boswell to learn more about how her early life influenced her film.
You didn’t just do a documentary on something that interested you. You did it on something you lived.
Yes, my early childhood was spent at Lincoln Institute, a black boarding high school in Kentucky where my grandfather was principal and my uncle was born. My grandparents raised me. If you came into their orbit, they raised you. My grandmom was supermom.
What was one of their main influences on you?
Both of my grandparents taught all of us on campus that despite the ills of segregation, never succumb to anger. “Don’t get mad, get smart,” they said. “Never let anyone drag you so low as to hate them.” These words of wisdom, I believe, helped Whitney Young become the great mediator of the 1960s civil rights movement.
You went from segregated Kentucky to segregated Chicago when you were a girl. When did you get out of the segregated educational situation, and what was that like?
It was fifth grade, 1961, at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. It was a very well-regarded school, but it was the hardest year of my life in terms of school. The social adjustment was really terrifying and complicated.
Up until that point, the only white person I saw was a doctor in Kentucky, and that was it. I didn’t think there were more than 10 white people in the world because I had never seen more. I remember going to my classroom the first day, and there was one black girl, and I was terrified and ran over and sat next to her. We just kind of huddled together, traumatized by this huge change.
How were you treated by the white kids?
They were trying to get their arms around it, too. They were confused as well. The teachers were, too.
In music class, the music teacher played Dixie, and some of the kids in the class stood right up like it was their song. A large percentage were Jewish. And I wanted to say to them, “You know what, this is not your anthem. Trust me on this!”
Later, in high school, the kids kind of self-segregated. I had black friends and white friends, and they didn’t sit together, so some days I’d sit with one group, some days the other, and I’d just go back and forth because they weren’t coming together.
What were the teachings like back then in these freshly desegregated schools?
My first kind of rejection of racism was when we were studying history, and the first time black people show up at all was with slaves. There was no talk of African history, no mention of one of the people on Columbus’s expedition being black, none of that. We just showed up in chains. That was upsetting. It’d be like the first time you see women they are in shackles.
In that same social studies book they had Negro in lower case, and I remember taking out my pencil and capitalizing it. I still remember that feeling that this was not right.
Did anything your grandparents taught you help you adjust?
They instilled confidence in everyone by teaching them to look people in the eye and speak to them, having you memorize poems, and other things that would help with social graces – regardless of personality. This was so helpful later in life, not just to me, but as it turned out, to my uncle.
I was surprised when my aunt told me that Uncle Whitney, unlike his later image, was actually shy as a boy. But my grandmother insisted that he learn to look people in the eye and speak to them, skills that she taught many people. I never saw him shy, ever!
In The Powerbroker, you describe how your grandparents made academics a priority at the school, but when the white trustees came though, they’d see girls in housekeeping-type dresses and boys out in the fields. What was that about?
This idea of keeping what was going on at the school private was just how life was for blacks back then. You’re in one world, and then you’re in the other, so you learn to be bicultural, bilingual, if you’re going to survive. It’s a different walk, different talk – everything – sometimes even now.
But back then, white people were very threatened by the idea of educating blacks. There was a well-known quote from some academic that if you educated Negroes, they were the ones who would be the evil ones. The only education that was considered viable and useful for blacks was the manual arts. Lincoln was founded to be mainly an industrial education/manual arts school for school.
My grandfather was very clear that everybody was going to be educated in academics; Latin, English, math, everything, in addition to the manual arts. But he also knew the donors – even though they were mostly liberal whites – wouldn’t want this. So when they came to campus my grandparents and the students and teachers would put on a show for them that was contrary to what was actually going on. The donors wanted them to be the farmers, homemakers, nurse aides, cooks, plumbers, janitors. So that’s what the school showed the donors, right down to the “mammy dresses” some of the girls wore. They didn’t know about the other side of education.
Fascinating! So in some way, were your grandparents part of your motivation for doing this film?
I felt I was “assigned by the ancestors.” As a journalist and a family member, I knew this was my story to tell. Letters from my grandparents essentially charged me with this responsibility.
Clearly this was a labor of love. You began shooting the interviews for this in 2004, long before you had secured funding for the project. Why is that?
Because of the advanced years of many of the interviewees, I knew I had to capture them while I could. Indeed, I have some of the final interviews of John Hope Franklin, Dorothy Height, and Ossie Davis. Once I had them in front of the camera, they were eager to talk. Most had been involved in the civil rights movement and were happy to share my uncle’s contributions. However, trying to recall the emotional landscape of events that occurred 40 years ago made the retelling of the story a little more “tidy” than actual events.
You packed so much into this film. Was there anything, knowing the story from the inside out, you would have liked to included that you didn’t get to?
In addition to being able to talk about my grandfather’s childhood shyness, I’d have liked to have shared the evolution of my relationship with my uncle from adoring niece to disgruntled Black Power advocate to appreciative adult.
To see Whitney Young’s last letter to his family before his untimely drowning death in 1971, see our blog post.