According to a recent study by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, public schools are slipping back into racial segregation--with black students experiencing the most rapid resegregation in the south, where all progress recorded since the 1960s has been lost. An upcoming documentary by Dana Bingham, a communication arts graduate student at New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), shows that segregated schools may not be such a bad thing and can actually be quite effective.
"Eliza Ross Miller: Ye Shall Know Thee By Thy Fruits" chronicles the post-integration disappearance of Helena, Ark.'s Eliza Miller High School, whose graduates have had remarkable success. The film was named a semifinalist by Moxie Films and has also been awarded a $17,000 grant by the Arkansas Humanities Council.
Bingham began filming the project on Dec. 8, 2002. A 20-minute cut will be completed this summer--with a July 28 screening scheduled at the Delta Cultural Center in downtown Helena--though Bingham hopes to eventually expand the documentary, or even distribute it as a PBS-type series.
"Nobody knows how great Eliza Miller High School was," said Bingham, 23. "The school went against every stereotype of education in the segregated South."
Eliza Miller High School was segregated from its inception in 1926 until mandatory integration in 1970. Bingham's parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles all attended the school, which planted the seeds that inspired Dana to tell its story.
"You have to understand where you came from before you can move forward," said Bingham. "While this is a personal documentary, I also hope to educate people and get them to compare how education is today to how it was back then, because we take so much for granted now with technology."
The school was named after its benefactor Eliza Ross Miller, an entrepreneur, philanthropist and civic leader, who purchased and donated the land where the school was subsequently built in 1925.
In addition to technical and agricultural training, Eliza Miller High School also provided liberal arts instruction taught by a well-educated and supportive faculty. "Students were told to believe in themselves," Bingham said. "They were taught to go out and see the world."
And that's what many of the students did: they saw the world--and they tried to better it. Mattye Whyte Woodrige, just one successful graduate of the school, lobbied with Eleanor Roosevelt for National Teacher Day. And Bingham's own father, George, is the director of the Chamber of Commerce in Phillips County, Ark.
Though Bingham considers herself "just as much from Helena as anyone born there," she was actually born in Tulsa, Okla., and raised in Providence, R.I. (though she did spend her summers in Helena growing up).
Helena is a proud city rich in Civil War history. It is bordered by the Mississippi River, less than two hours drive from Little Rock, Ark. Helena and neighboring West Helena, where Eliza Miller High School was moved to in 1954, have a combined population of approximately 15,000.
In January 2002, Bingham submitted a proposal for the film to the Arkansas Humanities Council through "Help for a New Day," a nonprofit organization based in West Helena. The Council awards grants through a competitive application process to nonprofit groups and organizations so they can plan, conduct and evaluate projects in the humanities for Arkansas citizens. Last November a $17,000 grant was awarded to the organization to help fund the film.
Bingham was also named one of 15 semifinalists by MoxieDocs (a division of Moxie Films). MoxieDocs received over 200 submissions with the projects judged based on their subject matter and the filmmaker's access to the subject.
Bingham has generally been a one-person-crew on the project. She has interviewed over 10 subjects thus far, including alumni and descendants of Eliza Ross Miller; she expects to conduct another five interviews: with student and faculty alumni, as well as experts from the areas of civil rights, education, and/or law--possibly even President Bill Clinton, former governor of Arkansas.
Having been taught by independent filmmakers, Bingham recognizes the resources she has and is confident she will make a high-quality film on a low budget.
Due to earn an M.A. in May 2003, Bingham (who also holds a bachelor of arts in film production from Howard University) has gotten the most out of her time at NYIT. "I've learned more in the past year-and-a-half than I had in the last four," Bingham said.
NYIT's location--just blocks from Central Park and Lincoln Center in New York City--hasn't hurt either. "There's so much to learn just by being in the city," she said. "With NYIT, I wasn't tied down by just going to school; I got to experience life."
Bingham has worked for Spike Lee's production company, 40 Acres and a Mule, and as a production assistant for PBS' landmark four-part series "The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow."
However, the tag of "student-filmmaker" doesn't stick to Bingham. "This is my career and I want to be a filmmaker," she said, "that's the approach I've taken. I don't think of myself as a 'student-filmmaker;' I consider myself a filmmaker."
Bingham has had a love for film dating back to childhood, when she spent many hours watching black-and-white films starring Jimmy Stewart. Her all-time favorite is Alfred Hitchcocks 1954 masterpiece "Rear Window."
Her mission is to focus on the Delta South, making both documentaries and works of historical fiction. She is currently working on a script with story developers from 40 Acres about Shepard "Cut-Out" Bryant, a 1954 graduate of Eliza Miller High School, who she had previously interviewed for the documentary.
Bingham went back to Helena last summer, where the residents already know how great an impact Eliza Miller High School has had. Now Bingham will make sure that the school's legacy reaches the rest of the country.