“I always say when people think of Austin, Texas, they don’t really think about Black people or Black people’s contribution. They just think about Sixth Street and South by Southwest,” filmmaker Funmi Ogunro says.
With her new documentary “Austin Black Freedom Communities,” currently in pre-production, Ogunro hopes to change the national conversation around Austin to include a more historical perspective on the past and present roles of Austin’s Black community.
Freedom communities (also known as freedmen communities) were established by formerly enslaved African Americans after the Civil War. Often anchored by churches, such communities built their own homes, businesses and schools. Some were large with populations over 1000; others were informal settlements of a few families. The city of Austin denied freedom communities utility services, and streets went unpaved.
However in 1928, the city implemented a master plan designed to segregate Austin. Many Black people were forced from their communities, and resettled east of what is now I-35.
Austin had at least 13 known freedom communities, with others in rural Travis County. Clarksville, located in Central West Austin, and Southside, located near South Congress Avenue, were two of the prominent, and Ogunro hopes to use them to tell more detailed stories, as well as to shed light on others that are little known.
Ogunro, 32, grew up in South Austin, but spent a fair bit of time in East Austin where both of her parents worked. Her interest in the history of Black people in Austin piqued after working on a 17-minute short film, “Reflections on A Legacy: East 12th Street.” She interviewed many Black elders who recalled the once-prominent commercial thoroughfare, an anchor of Black East Austin.
“They talked about how East 12th and East 11th were the Black downtown back in the ’40s and ’50s and I was fascinated, because I never knew that, no one really talked about that with me,” says Ogunro.
She was also introduced to the history of Austin’s freedom communities by public historian and consultant Stephanie L. Lang, a producer and co-curator of the “Reflections” documentary. Ogunro felt inspired to train her filmmakers’ lens on an important but over-looked history.
“We’re going to cover the early 19th century all the way up to about the 1930’s. We’ll talk about freedom communities in Travis County,” says Ogunro. “There’s over 15 in Austin, plus some that haven’t even been documented. We’re really just doing a lot of research right now.”
The team plans to talk to community elders to preserve their oral histories, and is tracking down descendants of freedom community members. Among subjects already lined up are community historian Harrison Eppright, who is also Manager of Visitor Services at Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau, Michael Emery, producer at KLRU, and “And Grace Will Lead Me Home” author Michelle Mears.
Ogunro is partnering with several Black organizations including Six Square and the newly-formed Travis County African American Heritage Commission, which identifies documents and preserves African American history and culture in Travis County. She is also sourcing archival photographs from the collections of the George Washington Carver Museum and the Austin History Center.
Visually, Ogunro is drawing inspiration from Ava Du Vernay’s Emmy-winning documentary “13th” which confronts the connection of race and mass incarceration. Their vision is to include some animation and motion graphics to break up the interviews. As a filmmaker, Ogunro tends to like filming in bold, visually-striking places with warm colors, she says.
She plans to use historic Black churches as primary filming sites since they are some of the only remaining structures with direct ties to freedom communities. Sweet Home Missionary Baptist Church in Clarksville and St. Annie AME Church in South Austin are two with freedom community roots.
“There are so many Black churches that started back in the late 19th century, early 20th century in these freedom communities that are still around,” says Ogunro. “Some of the people that used to live there can’t afford to live in that area anymore. And they live in Pflugerville, or Georgetown, but they drive down every Sunday and go to church.”
While the film will be focused on Austin’s freedom communities, Ogunro says the themes of Black resilience and resourcefulness will resonate across the nation, adding that the film will also spread awareness of systemic Black erasure in the United States.
So far, the crew has raised over $33,000 of its projected $100,000 budget, mostly through crowdfunding. They’re also pursuing grant funding, corporate support, and continuing their crowdsourcing campaign until Dec. 31.
Production is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2021with plans to hire a COVID compliance officer to ensure everyone’s safety on set. For Ogunro, who is a self-taught filmmaker, the project will mark her first feature-length film. She says her documentary is meant to provide healing against gentrification by sharing stories of resilience.
“I’m doing this because I’m from Austin and I feel like it’s a way to preserve history here,” says Ogunro. “It’s oral history. We’re documenting stories, bringing a bunch of resources that are already out there and studying it and putting it all into one documentary. We’re also uncovering new information.
“This is a passion project, a heartfelt project, produced by Austinites.”