This past weekend, we finally wrapped on shooting in Illinois and my two-week road trip finally came to a close. I have never had so much fun and simultaneously so stressed in my entire life. I cried, I laughed and I even laughed until I cried. We had a great crew and even during the tough times of this trip, I was learning far more than I think I ever could have gained from sitting in the office in New York. I’m not sure I’m cut out for this kind of life, but it was the most exhilarating and trying experience I’ve ever had.
When we first started our trip, the road seemed endless. As the George Washington Bridge disappeared from our rearview mirror, it really hit me that this trip was actually happening. As we sat in our rented SUV, our team (so far) consisting of Keith, our host, Dan, our producer, and myself, we were animated and excited for the road ahead. The first leg of our trip would lead us to Ohio, and during that 9 hour car ride we really got to know each other much better than we had sitting in the office. We laughed and talked about everything from religion to Oprah. We arrived and checked into our hotel in Chillicothe, Ohio and got settled in for the long trip ahead.
Bright and early the next morning, we met up with our Director of Photography Kerry and our sound man/media manager/doesprettymucheverythingelseman Mike and started our journey, quite fittingly, with a sunrise shot.
We spent our first several days in Waverly, Ohio- a town with a reputation of being a sundown town. Sundown towns were towns that historically did not permit blacks to live within their city limits; this phenomenon was actually more common in Midwestern and Northern states. We set out on our journey in order to determine if these towns, and their ideologies, still exist.
On the outskirts of town we came across a motel shockingly titled the Sundown Motel and jumped at the chance to shoot this lingering reminder of the town’s racism. It was an eerie introduction to this small town.
We continued to investigate the recent, systematic removal of a successful local black doctor who, due to numerous allegations, had his medical license revoked. We spoke to his patients and several members of the town and despite his glowing reputation in the community, his post as the county coroner did not sit well with local law enforcement and we believe they managed to get him removed from practicing not only in their town and the state of Ohio, but the entire country.
Those first few days we really got to know each other as a team and happily found that we all got along very well. Despite being the only gal on the trip, I never once felt like I wasn’t one of the guys – except maybe when we ate at practically every sports bar in the Midwest.
Ohio proved to be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what I was going to learn on this trip. I am no stranger to hard work and reveled in the very freeing feeling of not being tethered to an office chair, much like I am as I’m writing this right now. As I drove through the Ohio countryside by myself on my way to an interview, I have never felt so relaxed. There is something liberating about being on the open road – the possibilities seem endless.
After Ohio gave us all it could offer for our story purposes, we headed off to Tennessee. On the way, we discovered it would be better to divide and conquer so Dan and I stayed in Elizabethtown, KY. I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Kentucky. It didn’t hurt that upon our leave the next day, I was fortunate enough to drive a rented brand new Dodge Challenger. (Muscle cars speak to my soul and I have never had so much fun driving a car before.)
The team rejoined at the University of Louisville to interview the head of the Department of Pan-African Studies, Dr. Ricky Jones (a perfect interview set up by our trusty Associate Producer Cressida). Listening to Ricky talk about race in America and the history of sundown towns was captivating. He was eloquent and knew just the right things to say. As Kerry so succinctly put it, “You are a walking sound byte.” I couldn’t agree more.
Emboldened by our success in Louisville, and the best grilled cheese sandwich at a pub nearby, we got back on the road and headed for our next destination: Greenwood, Indiana. Greenwood was our hub of operations due to its convenient location near Martinsville, Indiana- our ground zero for our next case. We were there to investigate the cold case murder of Carol Jenkins, a young black woman murdered on a rainy night in 1968 while she was selling encyclopedias door to door in a known (at the time) sundown town.
As Keith and I drove into Martinsville for the first time, we sensed the shift in the air, as though even the trees did not welcome our presence. We were outsiders and everyone there knew it. Keith felt it even more pronounced because of the color of his skin. We drove through the center of town and more than one person looked at us sideways. Our crew wanted to get something to eat, so we stopped at a chain pizzeria off the main highway. Keith was so unsettled he did not even want to get out of the car. The similar feeling of “you don’t belong here” trailed along with us as we entered the restaurant. This small town did not make me feel welcome. While I understand the suspicious nature of strangers in small towns, it did not help settle my nerves. I was eager to leave as well, and my hotel room a half hour away was a great comfort.
Retracing the steps taken by the investigators before us, Keith thought it prudent to pay a visit to the couple who were the last people to see Carol alive- aside from her killers. After introducing ourselves, they were very kind and let us into their home. Shockingly, they informed us that no one, law enforcement or otherwise, had ever spoken to them about Carol’s murder aside from the weeks following her death. In that moment, we knew we had something. They were brimming to tell us everything they remembered. The guilt they must have felt over that night so many years ago seemed to weigh down their shoulders and deepen the lines of sadness in their faces. Carol’s death was something they had clearly not forgotten even after all those years.
Among the interesting information they told us about the initial night of Carol’s death, they told us without wavering that they knew who the killer was and that the man who was arrested for the crime when the case was reopened in 2002 was most definitely not the man who did it. The husband implicated his cousin as being the one to stab Carol after following her around while she walked through town that night trying to do her job.
This visit was the catalyst for the rest of our stay in Martinsville. The crew was shocked by this new information and was ready to jump headfirst into the story. We followed the leads they gave us and continued to investigate this startling discovery. At this point, I truly felt the wheels start to turn. I was excited about the story and the possibility to crack the case wide open- and hopefully get some justice for a still-grieving family.
After a night of well-deserved partying in Indianapolis to relax our nerves, we felt even more ready to delve deeper into this mystery.
Keith and I journeyed out to visit the Jenkins family and give them the new information we uncovered. The family was shocked and touched with the reveal of the first lead in over a decade. Sitting in their living room was emotional to say the least. It was unfortunate we were unable to capture their raw emotion as they received this new information. It would have been touching, but I suppose there is a time and a place for everything.
The next morning, our resident sundown town expert Dr. Jim Loewen joined our team. He was beyond knowledgeable about the subject and his academic perspective would prove helpful to Keith and his investigations.
The time finally came for us to confront the suspected murderer, who was still living in town in an assisted living facility. Keith did not want to go in by himself, as a black man walking into a local facility would set off all sorts of alarms, so I was asked to join him and I willingly got back in the car as just the two of us headed back to Martinsville. Entering the town again was a bit nerve-racking. We both were unsure of how things would turn out. We walked up to the front door and to our surprise, easily made our way inside. We found his apartment number and went right up to his door and knocked. Before even checking to see who was at his door, he called for us to come in. We shared glances that expressed our shock and tentatively opened the door.
I don’t believe I could describe the look on this old man’s face when Keith and I walked into his apartment. We told him who we were and what we were doing and to further our surprise he invited us to sit. The tension was high and I felt as though I was sitting next to a live wire. While this man did not seem threatening – he was in his eighties, blind in one eye and mostly deaf – his eyes spoke volumes of his hatred, which unmistakably ran deep. The next 40 minutes passed by almost in a blur. We asked him about that night and he stuck to his story that he has told for the past four decades. The unnerving thing I realized halfway through however, was his interaction with Keith. He would glance at Keith to acknowledge he was asking a question but he would direct his response only to me. It was exceedingly uncomfortable and I was anxious when it seemed like Keith was reaching the end of his questioning.
We left his home and did not waste any time in getting to the car. Breathing heavily, we got back on the road and made our way to the hotel. We called Dan once we left, and it was clear how nervous he was for our safety. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief, but my body was still thrumming with nervous energy.
As Keith and I drove back to our hotel in Greenwood, we reflected on what just happened and our experiences on the trip so far. It was then while we were sitting in the car that Keith realized we had not seen a single black person in the town we were staying in, Greenwood. Sure enough, we looked at Dr. Loewen’s website only to discover that we were in fact staying in a sundown town! We were surprised we hadn’t noticed it until then, but it became clear that he was not wrong. The only person of color we interacted with was a young black girl working at the drive through at Popeye’s. However, the atmosphere of Greenwood was far more inviting then Martinsville. The town was only 15 min from the heart of Indianapolis and although there was a lack of diversity, the animosity I felt in other sundown towns was absent in Greenwood, though the color of my skin has never really been a point of contention.
That night I was so emotionally exhausted after the previous few days, I broke down. The amount of stress was getting to me and I hadn’t had much time to myself so far. My body was tired and I needed to shut it down before I could restart my battery. As I curled into my bed, I clutched my pillow and slept like a rock. The next morning I woke up ready to conquer the second half of our trip.
We left the hotel and journeyed to the town of Oolitic, Indiana to purchase one of the only sundown town signs left in existence. Unfortunately, due to misinformation and frankly poor planning, we were unable to retrieve the sign. We left Indiana feeling disappointed ((Though we did have some awesome BBQ so it wasn’t a total loss). But alas, the show must go on.
The final leg of the trip led us to Vienna, Illinois, although we stayed about a half hour away in Paducah, Kentucky. Vienna was an integrated town until one day in 1954 when a black man living on the outskirts of town raped and killed a young white girl. Evidently, the able-bodied men of the town were deputized and stormed through town heading to the home of the perpetrator. They set his house on fire as well as many others in the small black community who lived on the outskirts of the town (known at the time by the townsfolk as Niggerhill). Most black families fled the town and even to this day there are still not many black families who live there.
We spoke to several people in the town who were around at the time and a couple who commented on the racial makeup of the town today. It was clear that the town was making strides to move past it’s racist reputation. But as the team continued to shoot in the town, tensions were running high. When you’re on the road for that long with such a small group of people, you tend to loose your head a bit. And while I reached my breaking point in Greenwood, everyone else seemed to be peaking in Vienna. The addition of the very academic Jim clashed with our creative team and I think at that point we were all eager to get home- but we still had a job to do.
I was lucky enough to end up in the town of Paducah where one of my friends Karson lives. We met up for the first time ever and went out to dinner with his husband Jeff. We had an amazing time and it was such a nice respite from all the stress that had been building up in me from the start of the trip. As it turns out, Johnny Walker and shrimp portifino do wonders to calm my nerves.
The gang went out for seafood for our wrap party and we had a pretty good time. There were drinks and laughter to go around and it really hit me that I would never have this experience twice. I worked with some amazing guys and only wish I had had more time to get to know them even better. But what we all had together was a wrinkle in time and could not be duplicated.
The trip itself was a series of ups and downs. Every other day I felt myself on the brink of tears and many times that came to fruition. We were frustrated many days but we were also silly at a Denny’s in Indiana at 3 am. It was indeed an emotional rollercoaster. I ate some great food (and some suspicious pizza) and decided that as a whole the Midwest has some beautiful places but is mostly just flatland with a Dairy Queen or Walmart in constant throwing distance. I couldn’t have been happier that I chose to overcome my initial fear of going on the trip to take a chance and jump into unknown waters. My anxiety turned out to be not much of a hindrance and that in and of itself was refreshing. I reveled in the feeling of being on the road. However, the hours were long and they took a toll- so as soon as I got home I passed out and slept for hours as my body tried to catch up on some much needed rest.
It was all truly worth it though. As my first field shoot ever, I went into this with a lot of concerns and fears. Stepping out of my comfort zone led to a whole new set of experiences, as it often does. The amount of knowledge I gained about the industry, myself and the country around us was enlightening. I learned about how to deal with conflicting personalities and egos. I can now organize myself on the go and print from pretty much anywhere. I’ve learned how to turn the page and move on when something doesn’t go my way, and how to calm others when they are feeling the pressure. I’ve discovered I can handle the stress of a shoot even far away from home so long as I have a way of decompressing after a long, hard day. I also now have a sixth sense for whenever a FedEx is nearby and I never want to step in a Walmart ever again.
As for this country and the people who live here, we’ve got a very diverse population. There are bigots everywhere, but there is a way to talk to them and sometimes you just need to know when to stop trying to change who they are. I discovered that we have a long way to go in terms of racism in this country. Even after two terms with an African-American president, racism is still prevalent in many parts of the country. If people do not want you in their town, they will make sure you stay out. As cliché as it may sound, I wish we could all accept each other for whoever we want to be as individuals. The world is full of all kinds of people and when you slam doors in the faces of people who you don’t know just on the basis of their skin color or religion or sexual orientation, you are closing a door to a world of beautiful people who are here on this earth trying to get by, just the same as you and me.
Overall, if I had to do it all over again I wouldn’t hesitate for a second in saying yes. The road is freeing on its own, but when you can break free of the boundaries you’ve set up for yourself, you will never know the feeling of being untethered and open to new experiences that will no doubt help shape the person you are meant to be.