Alum Becomes Inadvertent Documentarian


November 12, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin

Claudia Stack at African World Film Festival
Claudia Stack (right) at the African World Film Festival with film producer Timashion Jones.

Try as she might, Claudia Stack (A88) can’t resist a good story.

In 2003, while working at UNC Wilmington, she began working with her fellow educators on a project to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling. As she started to “dig into the local history,” however, she realized she wanted more than a textbook answer about what it was like to go to school in Pender County, the rural area where she lived, in 1954.

“I wanted to know the nitty-gritty day-to-day, what people’s experiences were like,” she says. “So I started talking to my neighbors and asking questions that led me down this really long road.”

Soon, a simple project turned into an obsession. Stack learned that the small abandoned buildings she “passed all the time” were actually historical schools built by the African American community during the segregation era. They, as it turned out, were Rosenwald schools—some of thousands of structures built in the south and co-funded by Julius Rosenwald, Booker T. Washington, and the communities in which they were built as part of what Stack calls a “pioneering concept in philanthropy.”

The early Rosenwald schools, she learned, came from architectural plans drawn by Robert Taylor, the first African American architect to graduate from MIT. The buildings were built from 1917-31, and Stack’s home state of North Carolina was home to the bulk of them: 813, more than any other state. The schools, though under-resourced, were responsible for providing a great education to their students, practicing pedagogy through peer learning and featuring fiercely dedicated teachers. They were in use from the 1910s to the 1950s/ 1960s, then, according to Stack, “mostly sold off and replaced by ’equalization schools’—which were new, but still segregated, schools that southern school boards built to try to prove that they were providing separate but equal facilities.” The few that remained until desegregation were closed or changed into middle schools when integration began, books and trophies and records thrown unceremoniously into dumpsters—literally, Stack says, “trashing the history of the communities.”

“I started documenting individual schools and realized quickly that this was an incredible legacy that hadn’t exactly been forgotten, but was certainly out of the public awareness,” she says.

As she met more and more Rosenwald alumni, she began to think that the information she was gathering might do well in documentary form.

“I’m an educator by trade, and a writer, but I began to realize that nobody else was really documenting the stories in my part of the world,” she says. “I spent the first two years trying to gather leads and contacts and give the project away to many people who really were more qualified than I was to do the project: community leaders, film professors, history professors. I went to filmmakers who I thought might be interested in doing a documentary, and all of them said the same thing: ‘Wow, that’s a really important project. You should definitely keep doing that.’ And so after two years, I realized I wasn’t willing to give away my stuff anymore.”

“I began to feel more ownership of it,” she adds. “There was always this urgency in my mind [that] the people who taught in and attended these schools were getting older, and a lot of them had already passed away. I began to feel frustrated that more of my colleagues, especially when I began teaching in predominantly African American schools, weren’t aware of the educational heritage of our students.”

Soon, she had made not one, but two documentaries about North Carolina’s Rosenwald schools—without an ounce of filmmaking experience. She worked from 2003-15 on the films, the first called Under the Kudzu and the second Carrie Mae: An American Life, about, as Stack says, “the life of Carrie Mae Sharpless Newkirk, who attended and taught in Rosenwald schools before becoming, in 1966, one of the first African American teachers in southeastern NC to integrate a white school.”

“It’s important to understand that African American communities were building schools before, during and after the Rosenwald Fund program,” she says. “During the segregation era, African American families paid their taxes, then had to raise additional funds to obtain schools for their children. The schools built using matching grants set up by Julius Rosenwald are just one example of African American education heritage.”

Stack was essentially self-funding, though she received a few small grants toward the end of her first project from the True North Foundation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Her second film was made with the support of Elizabeth Rosenwald Varet and Michael Varet, who purchased a camera and computer for her after seeing Under the Kudzu. Still, she says the process was “brutal”—but worth it. Her films contributed significantly to an effort to preserve North Carolina’s Rosenwald schools, and she published a guidebook on how to document and preserve other schools, both physically and through oral histories.

Stack and Newkirk
Stack with Dr. Richard T. Newkirk, who is featured in Sharecrop and attended a Rosenwald school. The pair’s presentation is called “Lessons from the Rosenwald Schools: Appreciating African American School Heritage.”

But she wasn’t done yet. While researching her Rosenwald films, she became interested in “the broader social and economic context for the school buildings,” learning that they were built primarily by communities of sharecroppers. The result was her most recent film, Sharecrop.

“There’s a pretty lengthy segment in the first part about the schools in the Tobacco Road [area], but it’s also about how people lived and worked and what the experience of sharecropping was like. It’s an oral history from 10 individuals who were involved in sharecropping in North and South Carolina, Appalachia, and the Mississippi Delta.”

The film, which came out in 2017, highlights different regional areas where sharecropping took place, but also asks deeper philosophical questions about the history of the practice: “Why didn’t people stop sharecropping? It was so abusive; why didn’t they do other things?”

“The impact that these people, these millions of nameless, forgotten individuals had on our country’s economy—they literally built it,” she says.

Unlike her other projects, Stack was not alone when it came to Sharecrop. She had grant funding from the Middle Road Foundation, and while she did “a fair amount of the filming” herself, she had some help from editor and filmmaker Rich Gehron, who she says “really polishes it.”

“I was so grateful to have the Middle Road Foundation come in and help me on this because it was such a big project,” she says. “I was so ambitious, and I just couldn’t have done it myself.”

Her ambition has paid off. Sharecrop has been screened at the 2018 National Council for Black Studies Conference and at the Duke Homestead Museum in Durham, North Carolina, as well as at the Borderlands Film Festival in Arizona, and the segment about Delta cotton has been screened in London and Detroit. It has been bought and taught by schools and is distributed to theaters nationwide through the service Stack has won awards and presented at national conferences—but still, she says, it’s somehow not enough.

“I’ve done a few things right, but I still can’t seem to get anywhere with these grant programs. But I have to plow on ahead, because the subject matter isn’t going to wait. It’s a little frustrating because you’re looking all the time for that breakthrough moment. I became so stressed out about it, and that’s not who I want to be—so outwardly focused and ego-driven,” she says. “I have to follow this strange inspiration and I have to be true to that. The inspiration that I have is to document these stories before they’re gone in the best way that I can.”

Currently, that means embarking on yet another film project, all while being “grateful for the many venues that have been able to share” her work. After taking three years off to work on Sharecrop, however, she has recently returned to her career as a special education teacher.

“Sometimes it’s not that much fun to be inspired,” she says. “I’m really honored that they asked me to do a JohnnieTalk, but I think it’s a little bit ironic because my path is really more of a cautionary tale.”

She pauses.

“If you’re interested in climbing some kind of ladder, I’m definitely not the person to look at. But maybe, if you’re interested in hearing from somebody who has a sense of fulfillment and thinks what she does is meaningful on some level, I guess I might be able to share a few things.”