Searching for Buxton: A Q&A with Filmmaker Marc Rosenwasser

February 17th, 2011

THIRTEEN’s UMOJA! Black History Month programming continues with Searching for Buxton.

The documentary reveals the story of a young African American who searches  for his family history in a small Iowa mining town, which became a center of racial harmony in the 1920s while the rest of the nation was facing segregation.

Inside Thirteen sat down with filmmaker Marc Rosenwasser to discuss this unique, little-known town and its remarkable history.

Watch the full program:

Inside Thirteen: How did you first hear about Buxton?

Marc Rosenwasser: I actually have a different life in Iowa, where I oversee an experimental TV workshop out there. The guy who funds that project had known the story; he’s a history buff, and let me know about it. I’d never heard one word about it, and almost no one I’ve talked to has heard about it – here or in Iowa.

IT: What was it about this town that created such ideal circumstances for race relations? How big a role did coal mining play?

MR: Coal mining is what brought all the folks to the town. It was a combination of black miners, many of whom were from the Charlottesville, Virginia area and European immigrants. So coal was the reason – the prospect of work, extracting coal was the reason most of them went there. What was remarkable, really, about the town is both how integrated it was, which was thoroughly integrated during a period of segregation in the United States, and separately, how well black people lived there at the time. Which is to say, just as well as white people. Not only did they get paid equal wages, but many of them did well enough to buy cars and have other luxury items from the era.

IT: How aware was the rest of the nation of the situation in Buxton at the time?

MR: I think there was some awareness of it, because we came across writings from some African American newspapers that referred to it as “the Athens of the North.” It’s also often referred to as a black utopian town.

IT: Did Buxton ultimately play a role in changing segregation laws?

MR: I don’t think so, because, in fact, what happened after the coal ran out, as the piece shows, is it was really a singular example, just decades ahead of its time. As soon as the coal ran out, and the people of the town had to flee, they had to endure the segregation and second class citizenship that was customary for black people at the time, everywhere they went.

IT: The story of Buxton is surprising in itself, but was there anything you were surprised to learn while making the film?

MR: Really almost everything about the town surprised me, because, it wasn’t known to me at all, I’d never heard of the place. There’s a young man featured in the piece who’s a colleague in Iowa, who is African American. His great grandmother and aunt are featured in the piece; both of them grew up in Buxton in their very early lives. To get to meet with them – they’re 90 and 95, and in incredibly good health, had very sharp recollections – was a surprise and a joy. It’s important to tell the story now, just because in a couple of years, there won’t be any survivors from the town.

IT: What message do you hope the audience will take from this film, particularly as it is being aired during Black History Month?

MR: One of the people at the end of the piece, an Iowa State professor who first helped excavate part of the town in the late 70s – the town has all but vanished in 60 or 70 years – he talks about asking why, if it happened then, it can’t happen today? I think that’s exactly the right question to ask.

I think it’s an example of how there are so many great untold stories; the question is how you find them, and, if you think about public TV, who can fund them. I would hope it would propel people to think about what the possibilities are in terms of untold stories and producing them for the enrichment of the public.