School documentary premieres

Published 10:01 pm Monday, September 22, 2014

The lack of a red carpet at Mount Sinai Baptist Church on Saturday belied the historical significance of the world premiere taking place inside.

“Strength Through Our Roots,” a documentary about the Nansemond County Training School and Southwestern High School, was screened for alumni, many of whom were the stars of the film.

“It was fantastic,” said Enoch C. Copeland, a School Board member and 1953 graduate of the school. “It really brings out the history of our community and our school.”

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Barn Films of Como, N.C., which has built a reputation on documentaries about segregated schools in the rural South, produced the film.

Caroline Stephenson, one of the producers, said it was difficult to fit 46 years of history into a 40-minute movie.

“It’s a lot of ground to cover,” she said. “There’s so much we couldn’t put in, civil rights issues we couldn’t even put in, because there was not enough time. That would be like a miniseries. Maybe this is just a beginning.”

The Nansemond County Training School was the first public high school for black students in what was then Nansemond County. It was built in 1924 with $1,500 from the Rosenwald Fund, established by Sears, Roebuck and Co. leader Julius Rosenwald to provide seed money for simple but safe schools where black children could learn. Local black families contributed $5,000 to the Nansemond County Training School, and $11,500 in public money also went into the pot.

The school had seven classrooms and an auditorium and hosted both elementary and secondary grades.

The old building still stands on the site of what’s now the former Southwestern Elementary School. In 1956, that building was constructed, and the name was changed in 1964 to Southwestern High School.

Hannibal E. Howell was principal for 42 years, making him the longest-serving principal in Nansemond County, according to the film.

In 1970, Southwestern graduated its last senior class, and the building began housing grades four through seven. In 1979, it became a middle school, and in 1990 it became an elementary school. Earlier this year, it was closed, and students moved to the new Pioneer Elementary School.

The documentary unveiled Saturday was filmed mostly at a school reunion last year at Mount Sinai, where alumni were invited to tell their stories.

Some graduates shared the systemic discrimination to which students were subjected. The students didn’t have buses until their parents pooled money to buy some that were barely in working order. As the black children walked to school, white students spat upon them and threw things at them as they rode by in their buses on their way to separate schools.

But the film also includes some moments of levity. One graduate recalled how his mother always knew before he got home when he had been in trouble at school that day. “And they didn’t even have cellphones back then,” he remarked, bringing laughter from the audience at the premiere.

Retired Army Col. Wardell Baker, president of the Nansemond County Training School Heritage Center and an alumnus of the school, said the film accomplished its purpose. He added that the heritage center group continues to work with the city and school system on the possibility of making the old building — seen in the documentary in poor repair — into a community center.

“They did an outstanding job,” added J. Harold Faulk, president of the Nansemond County Training School/Southwestern High School Alumni Association. “Hard work always brings good results. I commend all the alumni.”

Stephenson, the producer, said she and co-producer Jochen Kunstler didn’t do the hard work.

“You all did the hard work,” she said to the alumni. “You went to school despite some really impossible circumstances.”

The first public screening of the film is tentatively set for Jan. 15 at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts. It also eventually will air on PBS.

For copies of the DVD, which cost $25, call Mae Burke at 284-8214.