The Pride of Lions
Film Project Chronicled History of African American Community Through the Eyes of Its Oldest Citizens
First-time filmmaker Ingrid Palmquist trained her Nikon camera on the oldest members of Frederick’s African American community. They ranged in age from 89 to 105. Fellow members of the African American Resources-Cultural and Heritage (AARCH) Society helped her identify subjects for the film.
Each subject looked squarely into the camera and told the stories of their lives. With some coaxing from interviewer Barbara Thompson, they spoke openly about the lives, loves, losses and triumphs of generations of their families, much of it from oral history they had been given by parents, grandparents and teachers. They recounted segregation, discrimination and self-determination.
The year-long effort yielded a 77-minute film, The Tale of the Lion: Our Voices, Our Stories.
The title is derived from an African proverb that states, “Until the story of the hunt is told by the lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Longtime AARCH member Rose Chaney explains, “I have always found African proverbs to convey wisdom in a simple and profound way, so I was seeking a proverb that could convey the importance of AARCH’s mission for one of our newsletters when I ran across this one. I really didn’t do any research on the origin of the proverb. We just all felt it spoke to why AARCH is needed because most African American history is told from those who have not had the same experiences as African Americans. When we decided to do the oral histories of our elders, the proverb was a perfect fit for the title of the documentary.”
Palmquist set out to record and preserve history through the recollections of people who had lived it and, according to AARCH president David Key, she nailed it. “Ingrid was very receptive. She was there to capture, rather than create. She was able to do that in a way that was a collective,” he says.
A relative newcomer to Frederick, Palmquist is quick to point out that AARCH members including Key, Thompson and Chaney brought their own family histories and research skills to the project. “There is a sense of togetherness that comes from our family. Our grandparents, our extended family would come down to church and we would spend the day together,” says Thompson. She used these childhood experiences to draw memories out of the people she interviewed. Some of those memories were not so pleasant. “They told me things like, ‘I did what I did to get by. I had to raise my family.’”
Love and Pain
The concept for the film was simple: identify African American citizens who had lived through the cultural, political, legal and social changes of the last 100 years and record their stories. The implementation was more difficult. There was no budget. There were no sets, lights or props. Palmquist dusted off her camera and gathered her movie crew. Thompson set up interviews. Chaney and Key did research with the help of the Frederick County Public Libraries and other AARCH members. They went to their subjects’ homes, relied upon good natural light and began filming. They enlisted the help of 13-year old Jasper Parks, a student at Lucy School to compose and perform an original score for the film. An all-volunteer army of filmmakers got to work.
The final cut is a documentary with minimal narration and an emphasis on the spoken word. History comes alive through the faces and voices of the interviewees. They tell the portions of their lives that they find most interesting and relevant.
Several themes come out in the film. The speakers spoke fondly of family, church and community bonds. One hundred-year-old Dr. Blanche Bourne Tyree, the first female doctor in Frederick County and the daughter of Dr. Ulysses Bourne, Frederick’s first African American doctor, smiled when she remembered growing up on Ice Street. “It was a happy street. I knew everybody and they were really friendly. It was a nice time to be around,” she recalled. But she pulled no punches when talking about Frederick’s segregated hospital, park, swimming pool and movie theater. “Sometimes it’s almost unbelievable that things were as they were.” Dr. Tyree died May 30 at 102.
Scientist and teacher Warren Dorsey, 97, remembered the struggles and the perseverance that defined his personal and professional life. He told filmmakers the story of the day he told his employer, a local farmer, that he was quitting to go to college to become a teacher. The farmer used a racial slur when he told Dorsey that African Americans did not have enough sense to teach. Dorsey went to college, worked at Fort Detrick as a microbiologist for 25 years, earned his master’s degree in elementary education and became a teacher and eventually a principal. He looked straight into Palmquist’s camera and said, “There was a deep-seated reason why I wanted to get back into education. I was thinking about the day in 1937 in a hay field in Howard County when somebody told me I didn’t have sense enough to teach. But I proved that, yes indeed, I had sense enough to teach.”
Catherine Sappington, who died last year, was 105 when she was interviewed. She talked about a life filled with hard work and difficulties balanced with a loving family. “I want you to know this,” she said. “I have no enemies that I know of. I don’t hate anyone. I’m happy because I know who I am and what I am. I’ve had a beautiful life. I’ve had beautiful people.”
Then there are the stories told by 93-year-old Kenyon Parker. He was born in Delaware and eventually made his way to Frederick County. “We came up under poverty and segregation, no ifs, ands or buts about it. That was it,” he said. He served with segregated troops during World War II, traveling the globe to England, France, the Philippines and Japan. In 1946, he was discharged and was preparing to make a cross-country train trip from Seattle, Wash., when he was ordered to the back of the train. He said he heard, “All black troops, last four cars,” and he remembered sadly saying, “I’m home.” He settled into civilian life in Frederick County, only to suffer another indignity in 1955 when, like many veterans, he tried to get a loan to build a home. “We do not build houses for blacks,” a local banker told him.
There are 25 separate stories in the film and while it lays out the difficulties African Americans endured over the decades, another theme is woven throughout: Hope. It springs forward from 90-year-old Ianthia Gray when she talks about the election of President Barack Obama. “I felt like the country was finally considering opening up their eyes and their ears and their minds, that there was nothing in this world that people cannot do. Put your mind to anything and you can do it. Being a black president of the United States was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to us in this generation,” she said.
Story of the Storyteller
Ingrid Palmquist, a Washington, D.C., civil rights attorney, moved to Frederick to embrace the green space here. She and her husband rented a house adjacent to Mullinix Park and became active in the neighborhood, joining Friends of Mullinix Park and sitting on the boards of AARCH and the Frederick Community Action Agency. While she has lived in Frederick for only a few years, Ingrid’s family has a longer history here, one that influenced her desire to produce the film.
Palmquist’s great-great-great-great-great-grandmother was Marguerite Vincendiere, who fled the French Revolution and came to Frederick County in 1793. She and her children settled on a large plantation they called L’Hermitage, three miles south of Frederick along what is now Md. 355. It is now known as the Best Farm and is part of Monocacy National Battlefield. The family owned slaves and Palmquist readily acknowledges the actions of her ancestors. “The truth about our past is part of our collective healing,” she says.
Key says he trusted Palmquist to tell the tale of the lion because she is so open to telling the truth about history, be it her own family’s experiences and the stories of others. “There is a possibility for people to merge. We are living proof,” he says.
As much as Key is invested in preserving history, he very much lives in the here and now. He simmers when people talk about racial conflict and violence as if it is something from the past, and no longer an issue or a danger. “How can you say it’s not like that anymore and look at Charlottesville? It opened up an avenue for us to say this is where we are,” he says. But he looks at the violent imagery and demonstrations by white nationalists and neo-Nazis as springboards for people to take action against them. “Current events have awakened a lot of people.”
Some painful moments from Key’s past were awakened as he and the other AARCH members prepared for the premiere of the film last fall. It was held at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Downtown Frederick, a theater that Key remembers as the Tivoli, a segregated movie house. He and Palmquist thought it would be fitting to unveil their work at the Weinberg and welcome the 25 “lions,” to the event with great fanfare. They arranged for photos, a red carpet and a welcoming party at the same theater that had once ushered them to the “colored balcony.” Now they were front and center. For some, it was the first time they stepped foot into the venue.
Local officials and AARCH members spoke about the significance of the event and the film, many wiping tears from their eyes as they spoke from the stage. It was a celebration of the historic and the personal—an acknowledgement of the contributions of a community that had been marginalized for too long. In the film, Key summed up the sentiment perfectly, saying, “When we look back at our historical records, we don’t see ourselves. But we know we were there. We’ve been there all along.”
Since the premiere, the movie has gained traction locally and regionally. It won the Maryland Historical Trust’s Award for Excellence in Media and Publications earlier this year. It will be screened Aug. 2 at Jackson Chapel United Methodist Church on Ballenger Creek Pike. After that, the public will be able to request the film through AARCH’s new Heritage Center, opening soon at 125 E. All Saints St. In addition to exhibits and artifacts, the center will feature a theater room, research room, storage and archives.
Key and the other members of AARCH have been working for a number of years to find the right space for the center and now plans are moving forward. When they talk about the 3,200-square-foot space they are renting from the city, their eyes light up. Volunteers are at the ready to help set up exhibits and develop programs. The dream of having a place to examine history and facilitate new discussions with new perspectives is coming to fruition and AARCH members could not be more pleased.
There is a reason a group of lions is called a pride.