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Washington University Film & Media Archive

Henry Hampton and His Legacy

Presented by Bob Hohler
University Libraries National Council Meeting
Washington University in St. Louis
September 20, 2002

One spring afternoon in 1963, Royal Cloyd and I were sitting in his fifth floor office at 25 Beacon Street, the home of the Unitarian Universalist Association atop historic Beacon Hill. As head of the denomination's Adult Programs division, Royal had been my first boss at the UUA and he was a wonderful colleague, mentor and friend. He had just arrived back from a trip to New York where he'd been interviewing candidates for an expanded information department. He'd asked me to help him.

"Well. I think I've got someone I'd like you to interview tomorrow."
"Wow, that was fast."
"Yeah, well, actually I met him in a cab on the way here from the airport."
"Oh, this wasn't somebody you interviewed in New York then?"
"No. But we did grab a cup of coffee and talked for a while. About poetry mostly. He shut off the meter."
"You interviewed the cab driver?"
Royal smiled, his wide toothy smile. "Uh-huh. Very interesting guy. I think he said something about studying for his MA in English at BU. I thought he'd be a good editor. See what you think."

The cab driver, of course, was Henry Hampton. Recently graduated from Wash U, Pre-Med and English Lit, he'd taken a stab at Medical School, McGill in Montreal, but found he'd little appetite for medicine's strict routine. Instead, he thought he wanted to be a writer, so ended up in Boston and BU, but at the point when we met him, that is on hold. Because he isn't sure what he wants to do - at 23 few do -young, energetic, very bright and as far as work goes, still mightily undisciplined. Henry is a newcomer to the city, likes what he sees and decides to get more familiar with it. So, he does the logical thing. He starts driving a cab, and lo and behold, in hardly the blink of an eye, he gets Royal Cloyd as a fare. They begin a discussion that day that lasts off and on for 35 years.

In a matter of days Henry's career as a cab driver is at an end (I think he'd been emulating the hero of The Razor's Edge) and he started work as the editor of the Annual Year Book of the UUA. In a matter of months, serendipity at work in a big time kind of way, the recently hired director of public information is fired and Henry takes his place. At 24 Henry becomes the youngest African American professional to hold a major post in a major Protestant denomination.

And Henry's religious background? Catholic. I don't believe anyone bothered to ask or thought it was important. Henry fit right in. This was, after all, a place centered on the search for truth and understanding. A continuing, never-ending quest. There is the old joke: Those on the road to the Pearly Gates will come across two signs: One reads "This way to heaven." The other reads "This way to a discussion about heaven." There is no ques-tion which road Henry and those who worked around him would pick.

Henry was the product of a Jesuit high school education, trained in rhetoric and reasoning and the rigorous experience sharpened an already tough analytical intelligence. A graduate of Wash U, he got a broad exposure to science and liberal arts with a deep grounding in poetry and literature. So he had substantial intellectual assets to go with this well-honed capacity to argue any side of any issue. This he could do and did his entire life.

There is an intriguing symmetry to all of this, a design almost, which, if you were of a mystical bent, which I am not, would suggest that the happy accident which connected Henry to the UUA was no accident at all. I just happen to think we, those of us who knew and loved Henry, who worked with him, who benefited from his work, indeed, a country which benefited from his work, all of us were terribly lucky. Just think: he could have picked up someone from Polaroid or Houghton Mifflin or, heaven help us, Harvard, and ended up at one of these estimable institutions.

But then he wouldn't have served his apprenticeship in a place where he joined a small band of friends and brothers, answering a desperate appeal from Dr. King and boarding a plane for Selma Alabama on a cold, gray day in March of 1965.

He wouldn't have marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge arm in arm with the women and men who lived and worked in Selma and heard their stories and seen their courage.

He wouldn't have felt the fear and rage of facing the batons and guns of an armed posse dedicated to keeping him and others of his race in his place.

He wouldn't have had the gut wrenching memory of how he'd failed to persuade our friend and colleague, Jim Reeb, and others to climb on a bus out of Selma that day - and to learn only hours later that Jim had been set upon and fatally beaten.

Nor would he have had the opportunity to learn how to turn anger and sorrow into finely honed, disciplined action - action that directly helped to pass the Voting Rights Act later that year, an act that changed the face of the south and the face of America.

Henry was changed that year. We all were. He and we were put on a steep learning curve, finding ways to understand, to listen, to put discipline and power and make difference in people's lives. In a fateful march to a fateful year - 1967 - he developed the ability to navigate though the force fields that raced across the nation and the world. Vietnam and the complex myriad of movements to find a decent end to a calamitous war; the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the attempt to find meaning and direction from their work and sacrifice; the drive toward the empowerment of African Americans, women, youth, gays, and the search for consonance out of the massive collision of aspiration and values. This was a time and he was in an arena where all of these forces were converged and circling one another. As a communications officer and as an activist, as a writer and editor, filmmaker and poet, interpreter and analyst, facilitator and conciliator Henry was in the middle of it all. Later, people would say to me that one of the striking things about Henry was his capacity to listen, to hear even in the silences. This is where he learned it. I think of this five-year period as the equivalent of Henry's doctoral program.

There's not the particle of a doubt in my mind that if Henry had not connected with Royal Cloyd that day, he still would have found his own unique and powerful way to contribute to and enrich our world - a photographer, poet, playwright, teacher or scores of other callings. He would have excelled. But Henry found himself while swimming in this mid-sixties Petrie dish; he discovered the power of film and decided that as a filmmaker he could combine all of his interests and concerns.

So, he left the association to form a film production company he named Blackside on June 28, 1968. Henry would never again work for anyone else. In effect, other than a few part-time jobs - as a young man he once drove a Mr. Frostee Truck - his stint at the association was the only time someone else wrote his paycheck.

From the age of 28 until he died at 58, he followed the independent and often daunting path of independent filmmaking. For the first ten years Blackside concentrated on producing industrial training and government sponsored films - his company became a tremendously fertile training ground for young filmmakers, black and white. Perhaps the best work out of this period was a film created to attract minority youths into medicine called CODE BLUE. It was a close and gritty look at work and routines in the ER and was years ahead of its time. CODE BLUE circulated to communities, schools and colleges for more than twenty years and won many awards.

In 1978 Capital City Communications, a media conglomerate on the way to buying ABC, was polishing its public service image. It invited production proposals from minority owned production companies. Henry and his staff discussed possibilities and he proposed a series on the civil rights movement. He told them of his Selma experience, of walking across that bridge and thinking what a great, dramatic film it would make. Telling the story through the eyes of the people who lived it. In fact, telling the entire story of the civil rights movement from their point of view.

They proposed the project to Cap Cities and called it America -We Loved You Madly. Blackside won the contract. The project was conceptualized as 26 half-hour commercial TV programs. Henry and his producers and writers set about gathering material, criss crossing the south, interviewing and researching. It became very clear, though, that Cap Cities and Blackside were about two very different kinds of television. This was the era of Watergate and the height of investigatory journalism. Cap Cities wanted riveting, exposé material.

Steve Fayer, Henry's longtime scriptwriter and executive producer, recalls, "They had wanted us to make news - to reveal the story behind the story. But we had faith in the history. The history was the story. We tried to tell them no one had ever tried to see it through the eyes of ordinary citizens, for the first time we could hear their stories, and that we were being given a unique privilege." But Cap Cities was more interested in "gotcha" journalism and the two companies were never able to resolve their differing ap-proaches. The project was shut down in 1979, the early interviews and documentary footage stored away.

The Cap Cities meltdown wasn't the only reversal for Blackside. The US government had been the country's largest sponsor of independent films, but with the election in 1980 of Ronald Reagan; new policies drastically reduced US participation in the film production business. This was a body blow to Blackside, but one from which it could have recovered, since the business also had a sizable commercial side and could have expanded its ad agency and corporate productions. But Henry saw this as a dead end. He wanted more independence, not less. He didn't want to produce work for somebody else; he wanted to create his own work. He wanted to develop his own voice, follow his own vision, so over the next few years he intentionally shrank the company and began exploring new directions.

By the end of 1982 it looked as if he may have gone too far. Blackside was little more than a shell, a company in debt with one employee, Henry Hampton. Bankruptcy was surely lurking around the corner. Would he keep the company going or go on to other things?

Have I said that Henry was tenacious? He had never let go of the civil rights idea. And maybe the idea wouldn't let him go. Who knows? His problem was finding a way to do it.

In addition to his tenacity, Henry had another entrepreneurial quality. He was persuasive. Listen to Steve Fayer again. "Henry called me in the summer of 1983, long after I'd left Blackside. He told me he wanted to resurrect the civil rights series. I told him to save his money. We'd failed once, it was clear nobody gave a damn about that struggle. Especially our conception of it. Somehow, I don't know how, he talked me into working on it again."

Henry and Steve spent a sweltering summer in the basement of a South End tenement. The team also included Judy Richardson, a budding film-maker and SNCC veteran of the 60s and Davis Lacy, another young talent. They put together several film treatments and created a demonstration reel - an 8-minute sampler - from the stored footage. Judy gave Henry a list of 25 or 30 Freedom Song titles and he chose Eyes on the Prize for the series.

Henry also drew on the advice of Michael Ambrosino, a close friend and the original producer of the successful documentary science series, NOVA. Michael guided Henry into and through the world of public television sponsorship. Henry widened his circle to include Ruth Batson, the founder of METCO, one of the most successful inner city to suburb school integration programs in the country. Ruth helped Henry find local supporters and boosters for the project. Henry called her the midwife for the series. Another key networker was Peter Karoff, a successful businessman who later founded The Philanthropic Initiative, a firm that gives philanthropic advice to people of wealth. A good friend to have.

Then finally, into this mix Henry stirred a group of friends, that included Jack Mendelsohn, a writer and prominent Unitarian minister, Joe Breiteneicher of The Beacon Companies, Digital Corporation V.P. Erline Belton, myself and Ruth. We formed a non-profit entity called The Civil Rights Project, Inc. to serve as the fund raising arm and steward of any archival material that might be produced out of these productions. Soon added were the wise voices of historian Vincent Harding, urban sociologist Jim Jennings, Dean Rob Hollister of Tufts University and Dean Jim McLeod of Washington University in St. Louis.

By fall of 1986 a new Blackside has risen out of the ashes of the old. Grants and gifts to support its signature project began to flow into CRPI to sup-port the venture, fitfully at first, but then as more and more as funders like the Ford Foundation and business executives like Stanley Goldstein caught Henry's vision there was enough, just enough to produce the series.

Eventually 35 men and women would come to Blackside to work on Eyes. Almost all were young and with the exception of Judith Vecchione, who had previously worked on the landmark the Vietnam Series for WGBH, their experience in creating a complex and sustained historical documentary series was next to nil. Remarkably, Henry and this team of young and inexperienced filmmakers, working from scratch, created a process that would become a kind of gold standard or best practice for a new kind of television.

The process included:

"The energetic use and involvement of advisers - historians and experts - who served as the faculty of schools in which writers and producers were expected to try out and defend their ideas, approaches and theories. Henry knew full well that excellence comes from the healthy abrasion of good minds.The creation of production teams that paired white and black producers and editors, so that the series point of view was not the white point of view or the black point of view, but the right point of view. The insistence on proof-basing every fact, not once, but at least twice, and often three times. "We weren't going to fail because we took short cuts in our scholarship", says Steve Fayer, who was the series principal writer. Henry's insistence on making sure that the other side had its voice - there's that Jesuit training again. Most importantly, telling the stories through the eyes of the people who were there and who experienced it first hand - ordinary people, who showed extraordinary courage, resilience and fortitude. The question, they asked was "Have we told their stories fair and square?" because that's how you got to the truth of a thing. "These formulas," Henry said a few months before he died, "are not magic, but they are powerful and important . . . They make all the difference in the way history is told." The scores of film producers, writers, editors and technicians who developed these formulas with Henry went on to use them in creating their own works. They continue to do so today. As a society we are much the richer because of their contributions to our understanding of who and what we are. This is a living part of Henry's legacy.

The series was done in two stages, Eyes I, six programs, released in 1987 had a tremendous impact and won the prestigious DuPont-Columbia Gold Baton; Eyes II released two and a half years later in eight parts, did nearly as well and won the Silver Baton. Collectively the series garnered a clutch of Peabody awards and Emmys and even an Academy Award nomination. Perhaps even more important, Eyes became an active part of the history or social sciences curriculum of over 35% of the colleges and universities in America. Thousands of high school and grammar school classes have used it and continue to use it. It was translated and reformatted for the European markets. A two-hour version was circulated in Asia.

As Norman Boucher wrote in 1988, "The film footage the production staff collected, sometimes as it was about to be thrown away, comprises an archive that no serious historian of the civil rights movement can now ignore." I can't imagine what he'd say today, 14 years later as we survey a body of work that spans not only the civil rights era, but also the Great Depression and America's War on Poverty. Include in this the historical overviews of the black artist in the twentieth century, the life of Malcolm X and soon, the black religious experience in America. What a treasure. There simply isn't enough time to do this justice. So let's say two things in conclusion.

First, Henry's life and work illustrate brilliantly the James Baldwin insight I came across a few days ago: "History", Baldwin said, "does not refer merely, or even principally to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us and are unconsciously controlled by it." What distinguishes Henry is that, like Baldwin, he harnessed that force to help us search for deeper understanding and truth.

Second, there is a wonderful symmetry to housing this great body of work at Washington University. Henry loved his alma mater and took a deep and justifiable pride in his roots. His work has come home to a place where people really understand its value and are prepared to use it in ways that will resonate through the ages.

Finally, the next time you take a cab be sure to have a conversation with the driver. You never know who may be behind the wheel and where that con-versation may take you.

- Bob Hohler 9/20/02

Later this evening, following a dinner celebrating Henry Hampton's life and work, Bob Hohler made the following toast:

When Henry died, our dear comrade and brother, the great historian and teacher, Vincent Harding asked:

"Who is left to change the world?"
He answered:
"We are left to tell the old story.
We are left to keep creating the new one.
We are left to keep our eyes on the prize."
We are left, Henry. You can count on us, just as we could always count on you . . .
Amen, Selah, Salaam Aliakem. Right on."
Carry on the legacy.