When I decided to become a public historian, I did not imagine myself embarking on a journey towards becoming a documentarian. Enrolling in HIST 6132: Digital Video for Museums was, in all honesty, unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. Rarely did I previously watch documentaries, and rarely did I ever consider the role of film in preserving collective memory. But film is a powerful tool for conveying ideas, themes, and long-lasting lessons about events and people from the past. In a way, documentaries solidify the voices from the past—that is until a new documentary about the topic comes out and contradicts the initial film.
“From the River to the Jailhouse” focused on Black resistance during the Antebellum era. Our video followed the paths of three different narratives in St. Louis history—Lucy Delaney, Mary and John Berry Meachum, and Francis McIntosh. I researched the lives of the Meachums, and their journeys to acquiring freedom and assisting other enslaved individuals in self-emancipation. While documentation was scarce, the existing stories and narratives concerning the Meachums are powerful and reflective.
The Meachums existed in a time where their voices were erased, but today, we must strive to remember their stories. However, it was crucial for our team to not take the spotlight from our subjects, or to emphasize the roles of white figures in history. The roles of white figures are largely known in St. Louis history, and their names are plastered throughout the city. But we still have quite a way to go in remembering the strength of the Black leaders in St. Louis over the centuries. Hopefully through projects like ours, we can assist in increasing awareness, remembrance, and recognition of the individuals that made St. Louis the city it is today.
While crafting the documentary, my group and I proposed multiple ideas and themes. One theme focused on the contemporary perspective, while a different theme covered the legality of the entire situation. After scrapping the initial plans, though, we realized our responsibility was to amplify the voices of our subjects for the role of poetic justice, preservation, and as part of a greater, authentic addition to St. Louis history.
Through the creation of the film, my group focused on establishing a poetic feel for the viewer, while throwing in a dash of an expository mode. We wanted to create a larger story, connecting the three narratives together, but lacked any visual documentation mainly because of the film’s time period. Our video utilized images, newspapers, an amazing storyteller’s first-person narration—Ms. Rosie Willis, and shots from a recent vigil to remember Francis McIntosh. All of these combined aspects highlighted the relevance of our subjects and showcased the connections between the Antebellum era and today’s world. We continue to remember the stories—may it be through candlelit vigils, documentaries, or through collective memories taught in a traditional classroom setting. These histories could no longer go ignored, nor could they continue to be downplayed when discussing the depths of St. Louis history.