BLOG–A Pleasant Future for Wilberforce University
- Published: October 19, 2017
When Yellow Springs native and Wilberforce University professor Cheryl Durgans was seeking out local African-American history, she was told by an out-of-state friend to look into the death of a man named Solomon Pleasant. Pleasant was the grandfather of the woman making the request; he was murdered by his second wife in the 1920s; she then disappeared, never to be seen again. Little did Durgans know at the time, this simple request would result in the ambitious film project “Endless,” which culminates in a debut viewing and cast panel at The Neon on November 1 @ 7:30pm. For tickets, click here.
Durgans is a seasoned educator and a dedicated fine artist. An alumna of Spelman College, which is an historically black college/university (HBCU), she has been acutely aware of Wilberforce University, the nation’s first private-HBCU, since she was a child. As an adult and faculty member, she is acutely aware of the recent history of mismanagement, debt, plummeting enrollment, at-risk accreditation, and tarnished reputation of Wilberforce.* She’s also determined to be part of its resurgence. For Durgans, the change begins with curricula.
Boredom is not just a concern for students, but also for professors. Durgans is not a creature of the lecture hall. She is an artist, a doer, a person who likes to push to the point of risk, believing that there lieth the truth. Thinking about Solomon Pleasant, who was African-American, and how his story might help bring together disparate members of the campus, she reached out to someone she thought would be similarly emboldened and inspired to try something that could assist a renaissance at Wilberforce.
Several years ago, Elias Kelley was on a flight when his seat mate, a stranger, nudged him and asked what he saw below them. Kelley shrugged and said, “The heartland?” No, the man replied. Nothing is down there. “That’s why they come to me in L.A. to fulfill their dreams.”
Below that plane was the state of Ohio.
Something about the arrogance and presumptiveness of the statement rubbed Kelley wrong, so the filmmaker and graduate of Clark Atlanta University, where legendary director Spike Lee took courses while at Morehouse College (another HBCU), decided to relocate to Ohio.
Kelley soon became involved in the local Black Lives Matter movement, which led him to be arrested for participating in the “die-in” at the Beavercreek Wal-Mart where John Crawford III was murdered and for whom no justice has been rendered. Kelley’s activism and professional work brought him into contact with Durgans; together they formed a production company, Shelby & Yellek. Their mission: to tell stories that involve, at every level, African-American and Black writers, actors, producers, and crew.
Jalen Martin, a student at Wilberforce University and an executive producer on “Endless,” is a self-described geek with an arresting smile and surprising profundity. Praised effusively by Durgans and Kelley, when Martin spoke about the film project he emphasized the community that is built when people come together in the creative act. He now feels like he can give a “wuzzup” to football players or women who “are all into makeup” and it is returned with genuine enthusiasm.
So what is the idea? What is it that they have done that could launch Wilberforce University back into the national spotlight for positive reasons in line with their long, noble history?
With the at-first tenuous support of university administration, Durgans gave her four classes a choice: a term paper or a film project. Overwhelmingly, they chose the latter. In relating the story, Durgans laughed and said, “They spent hundreds more hours on this project than they would’ve a term paper, but the great thing is they wanted to.”
The social science class was tasked with doing historical research for and the writing of the film. Kelley described how they went to Tarbox Cemetery in Cedarville. There they found Solomon Pleasant’s grave. But they found something else that proved to be the spark that lighted the fire.
According to Durgans and Kelley, there were 7-10 headstones, all from two families, McMillan and the McCoy, which mark the remains of children under one year of age. Further research showed that a drug company was developing a drug to “cure” what ailed the children. A question arose: Were the drug companies killing children in order to generate future customers for the cure? Kelley shook his head, marveling, and said the plot would be fantastical if there were not historical documents to undergird the main plot details.
Durgans added that the writing of the film is impressive. The movie is a psychological thriller, a genre that is not prominent amongst African-American filmmakers. As filming commenced, the students themselves came to identify things that did not work, and would rewrite scenes on the fly, even with a tight four-day shooting schedule and an additional two-and-a-half days for reshoots. While students rewriting the ending of a film might make most directors nervous, Kelley believed in them without reservation.
“I don’t play,” he said. “I was mentored in a very strict method. I bring that discipline to my sets. It was hard for some of them at first, but soon students themselves were demanding high standards from each other.”
With a setting in the 1920s and a shoestring budget, location needs might have stopped them in their tracks. Enter Mary Durgans Willet, Durgans’ mother, who lent her home, even amidst personal trials, for 90% of the shoots. Students in the art appreciation course, like Martin, are the producers on the project. Art history students were tapped to be actors; members of the humanities class round out the production, serving as vital crew members.
The house itself became a metaphor for the larger project according to all three filmmakers to whom I spoke. Both mentally and spiritually, they noted, the house is a character in and of itself. One must see the film to understand more.
Many of us feel overwhelmed as of late because there are emergencies all around us. From health care to immigration, causes abound for our time, talent, and treasure. It may not seem like supporting a student film is an act of social justice. But I write because I think it most certainly is, especially for us in Yellow Springs.
The loss of any HBCU will be a national tragedy. I don’t say this lightly or with hyperbole. These institutions are living testimonies of the determination, brilliance, cultural contributions, and legacy of African-Americans, yes. But equally important is that these institutions are part of our national history; as Confederate monuments rightly are pulled down, we should seek to do what we can, individually and collectively, to shore up, through community support, HBCUs like Wilberforce University.
Yellow Springs and Wilberforce University have been neighbors since 1856. Faculty, administrators, and students alike have lived in the village. Of course, Antioch College is our primary educational concern as a community. But the students of Wilberforce University have created something that, with the right falling of dominoes, could become a multi-episode story that will involve an increasing number of students. It can be a legacy for years to come, and bring deserved attention to one of the most important schools in American history.
Please visit here to learn more, and stay tuned to #saarinotsorry for more updates.
*For a good summary, read this article from Higher Ed Magazine