Hearing the "Voices of Baltimore" under segregation

“In relearning the past, we can reimagine our future.”

By Sedonia Martin on February 9, 2018

When Gary Homana, Ph.D., invited Evelyn Chatmon to share her story of growing up and living through legal segregation in Baltimore with his Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on America’s Urban Education class, he got way more than a guest speaker. That lecture became the impetus for the film documentary, Voices of Baltimore: Life under Segregation. 

The premiere of Voices will be screened on Friday, February 16, from 4:30–7 p.m. in Stephens Hall Theatre with opening remarks by Towson University President Kim Schatzel. A panel discussion, featuring the participants of the film and TU College of Education faculty, will immediately follow. The event is part of the university’s focus on Black History Month. 

Voices of Baltimore preserves the rich oral histories of a quickly-diminishing population of African-Americans who lived through the era of legal segregation—Jim Crow laws—by documenting the lives of individuals who attended segregated schools or experienced desegregation before and after the historic 1954 Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling. 

“There was a strikingly sense of the power in Evelyn’s story which touched my soul,” said Homana. “It was transformational—a realization that this and other stories like it needed to be preserved—for their value, courage, commitment and dedication—not only for the individual but for the community. Perhaps more importantly, it was a recognition of those who came before and their lived struggles for rights as human beings.” 

Homana, along with Morna McDermott McNulty, Ph.D., and Franklin CampbellJones, Ph.D., produced and directed the film that asks the question, “Where have we been, and where are we going?”   

The most empowering takeaway from working on the project, according to McDermott McNulty, was “being part of a powerful narrative that hopefully will affect people to re-examine what they have been taught and subsequently empower them to take part in fighting institutional opposition in the present and future.” 

These stories—of individuals who never expected that their lives to become a testament of resilience and an enduring legacy against oppression—speak volumes about how our nation, and its people, can become a more tolerant and equitable society.   

According to Homana, Chatmon was central in the process of including others in the film. McDermott McNulty knew Walter Gill, Ph.D., who teaches in the College of Education, and through recommendations of Chatmon and Gill, the other participants were identified: Chief Judge Robert Bell, Louis Diggs, Elizabeth Frances Nichols Gill, Treopia Green Washington and Patricia Welch, Ph.D. 

After initial conversations, four themes emerged, reflecting remarkable consistency across the conversations. 

The producers/directors chose film as the research vehicle because, “I wanted to be part of a project that uses non-traditional forms of inquiry,” said McDermott McNulty.    

“Using film as an alternative medium to traditional research to capture these stories was essential in the process.” added Homana. 

Homana, McDermott McNulty and CampbellJones are developing an accompanying curriculum guidebook for use with the film that could be utilized in a core course offered by the College of Education. 

“The purpose of the work is to serve as a way for students to critically analyze the continuing struggles around issues of equity, power, privilege, segregation and social justice faced in schools and neighborhoods across the country,” added Homana. 

In addition to the TU screening, the film will be shown at Bowie State University as part of Black History Month and organized by Green Washington. It will also be presented at the National Council of Teachers of English Assembly for Research (NCTEAR) conference being held at Towson in March; the 14th International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry conference (May, 2018 in Urbana, Illinois); and the National Council for the Social Studies conference (November, 2018 in Chicago). 

Homana has been approached by colleagues at Brandeis University, Tufts and the University of Maryland College Park, as well. 

“We intend to use Voices of Baltimore to build partnerships across our diverse community working with schools and organizations," Homana said. “These partnerships will enable increased use of the work and promote ongoing thoughtful discussions and critical analysis of the various social, cultural, and political forces surrounding segregation and integration – and how they exist in schools and society today.”