The Strength of Scribe, Where Videos Give Voice to Unheard Stories
Photo from Collection of David King Jr.
With extraordinary scholarship and Philly grit, the power of video to tell a story thrives at Scribe Video Center, nurturing the talent and creative ability of people like Valerie Harris, who saw a common cyclical narrative in one township’s history and turned it into a compelling documentary film.
It started small, just a group of seniors taking a memoir writing class in the Philadelphia suburb of Darby Township. The class was taught by Philadelphia writer Valerie Harris, who uses an unusual teaching style: she writes concurrently with her students. This class story began with Harris sharing a profile of her aunt, whom one workshop participant recognized, and then further connections were made among the group. As class members started exploring their common roots, Harris knew that she needed to dig deeper to find out more about the community and its history.
She wanted to put some structure to the material she was gathering, so she enrolled in a scriptwriting for documentary videos class at the Scribe Video Center in West Philadelphia. The workshops are one of many programs offered by Scribe Video Center, a creative hub and educational resource that has been in operation since 1982. Harris didn’t enroll in the class to make a documentary film; she just wanted help in structuring information for a brief oral history project. But her teacher, Louis Massiah, Scribe’s founder and executive director, encouraged her to develop the story further. Her subject matter—an African American community’s displacement, being moved around at the power of the local government’s whim—was not small at all, he assured her. It was complex and large and universal. What she needed was to go bigger, he told her. It was a story that needed to be told, and Scribe would help her tell it.
While Harris is an accomplished writer and communications professional, she had no background in video. But Scribe welcomes and supports both novice and experienced media artists, giving them the tools and knowledge to shape and share their vision.
When Massiah asked each of his students to come up with a title for their project, Harris chose “A Highway Runs Through It,” referring to Hook Road, the four-lane highway that was constructed through the neighborhood as part of the redevelopment movement that started in the 1950s, and which, under the legal structure of eminent domain, uprooted many of the area’s longtime African American residents. A recurring theme—the habitual displacement and marginalization of African Americans—ran through the history that Harris uncovered, dating back to the time of 18th-century indentured servitude, through the Great Migration of African Americans from the South that began in earnest during World War I and extended into the early 1970s, to the 1950s redevelopment and resulting actions like the highway of the title, and the formation of an all-white school board that demolished the black school and built a new one to which the newly displaced black students had to be bused.
Harris decided to tell what happened in a straightforward way and to let viewers draw their own conclusions from the historical information. She gathered contemporary statements from residents and vintage photographs from the collection of local photographer David King Jrand conducted months’ worth of historic and newspaper research. She also interviewed longtime residents. In addition to Scribe, Harris’s efforts were supported along the way by the Leeway Foundation, PA Council on the Arts, the Philadelphia Film and Video Association (PIFVA), the Puffin Foundation, and the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.
Photo from Collection of David King Jr.
The film had its premiere screening at the First African Baptist Church in Darby Township to a packed house of over 500, a cross section of generations, races, and economic backgrounds that represented the community in the broadest sense.
The screening was used as an opportunity to launch Community First, a new organizing effort in Darby Township whose mission is to address industrial zoning in residential areas and other issues. The overflow crowd was largely a result of word of mouth, aided by the fact that one of Darby Township’s two African American commissioners was interviewed on camera and appears in the film. Older residents who lived through the redevelopment displacement described attended the premiere, and they brought their children and grandchildren. Although the events occurred some time ago, the treatment the residents experienced still stings, and the threat of further dissolution of the community continues to loom. It is important to community residents that their story and voices can finally be heard.
A copy of the video will be placed in local archives, which is significant because, as is common in black communities, there are few documents of African American history in town records. “What has happened in Darby Township has happened all over the country,” Harris states. “We cannot allow our history to be lost.”
In telling one community’s story, she has told a common, cyclical tale of racial displacement and injustice. The film also fulfills Scribe’s mission and belief that video is a powerful way to address economic and political struggles.