Documentary honoring lynching victims shown at UMass

‘Ashes to Ashes’ acknowledges nearly 4,000 victims from 1866-1950

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Documentary honoring lynching victims shown at UMass

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

(Collegian File Photo)

By Claire Healey, Collegian Staff

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On Tuesday night, the University of Massachusetts hosted a screening and discussion of the documentary “Ashes to Ashes.” The film documents Dr. Shirley Jackson Whitaker’s project to honor, acknowledge and mourn nearly 4,000 African Americans who were victims of lynching between 1866 and 1950.

Enobong (Anna) Branch, the associate chancellor for equity and inclusion, chief diversity officer and professor in the department of sociology said the motivation for the screening was to “share a bit of America’s racial past with the current generation.”

“A lot of UMass faculty and staff and people generally connected to the area were a part of the 2016 memorial event, and it had deep connections to UMass, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity to share it,” Branch said, “which is also why we purchased [Whitaker’s] collections for the campus to be available in our library so that even as the etchings and next steps for ‘Ashes to Ashes’ go nationwide, to the Library of Congress, to make sure that the campus is able to maintain those connections and use it as an educational resource going forward.”

Whitaker is a kidney specialist who delivers messages on health over the radio, at events and through her artwork. In April 2016, as part of her “Ashes to Ashes” project, she organized a funeral ceremony in Springfield, Mass. for the thousands of African Americans who were denied a proper burial, including both victims of lynching and the Middle Passage during the time of slavery. The documentary, which has yet to be officially released, follows her journey through this undertaking. The film included footage of both her time leading up to the ceremony and the funeral itself.

“I don’t want the people who were lynched to be forgotten,” Whitaker said. “It’s over three or four thousand, probably five, we don’t know, that were brutally mutilated or abused, and it’s still going on, some form of brutality, after 400 years. The first boat came here Aug. 20, 1619 and we’re still worrying about people wearing white hoods and white supremacy. But we have to keep fighting to make this country a solid place.”

Branch added “we have so many pressing day-to-day challenges, with racism and hate, and we can lose perspective.”

“This is perspective on the struggle, and the length of the struggle and how important it is to keep that awareness of the need to push for equality and issues of racial justice,” Branch said.

During the pre-screening, Whitaker was joined by renowned artist Winfred Rembert, who is also featured in the film. Rembert is a self-taught painter who carves and paints with dye on leather canvases – a skill he learned while serving time in prison in Georgia. He is the author of several books, including “Amazing Grace” and “Don’t Hold Me Back,” and has work in galleries in several cities, including the Hudson River Gallery in New York City and the Adelson Galleries in Boston.

In addition to “Ashes to Ashes,” Rembert has a biography coming out and a 2012 documentary about his life called “All Me: The Life and Times of Winfred Rembert.” Rembert’s work focuses on the harsh reality of Jim Crow segregated Georgia, where he grew up: the cotton fields he worked in as a child, his time on a prison chain gang, his survival of an attempted lynching and his participation in the civil rights movement. Rembert is the only known survivor of a lynching, and in the film he and Whitaker discuss his experiences in Georgia and the significance of the “Ashes to Ashes” project.

“We often treat these things as Black history, especially during February, but this is every bit as much American history as everything that’s taught during American history classes in school,” said Emmanuel Adero, director of special projects at the office of equity and inclusion.

Adero emphasized the history is carried every day by people marked by it and the documentary is a “very, very powerful example of what the scope of it is.”

“And it’s not even all just history, I remember [1998], the lynching of James Byrd in Jasper, Texas, and that wasn’t the last one probably. I like to hope that these things aren’t happening in our country like this today, but a country doesn’t shrug off its history that easily,” Adero added.

After the event, Rembert and Whitaker talked about their experiences and the role of the project and art in their lives.

“For me, it’s helped me tell my story,” Rembert said when asked about the role his art plays in coming to terms with history. “I can leave here on earth and die after sharing these pictures and they will not just [tell] my story but the stories of other Black people coming up through the Jim Crow era.”

When asked about what she hopes people take away from her film, Whitaker pointed to the importance of looking at this history.

“My hope is that when people see the film, the artwork or the book of etchings, that they realize that this is American history, it is not just African American history, because this helped to lay the foundation of this country,” Whitaker said. “We don’t want to acknowledge this dark history, but as a physician, if you go to a physician and you walk into their room and they don’t ask you your history, you should get up and walk out, because that history is what is needed to help you to heal, and this is our history.”

There will be a viewing at a later date for Whitaker’s collection of etchings purchased by UMass for its archives.

Claire Healey can be reached at [email protected]