I was just kicking it watching the old Twitter stream when someone I follow put up a video by their cousins.
25 seconds in I go HEY THAT’S My Muhdear! (Grandmother) want to find out how she got there?
In 1950, pioneer documentary film maker George C. Stoney produced a film called Palmour Street. The film was a combination soap opera, and sociological educational film that was revolutionary for its time in that it portrayed the struggles and issues of African American family life in a troubled, but positive manner. There was a mother and father and of course children, but their lives as portrayed in the film stood in stark contrast to the seemingly carefree and prosperous lives of white society portrayed in the same era. This film is very personal to me in that it starred my uncles and grandparents.
The film had always existed as a sort of folk lore in my family. I knew it had been made, and I had even seen it once back when VHS was king, and I was shocked once while watching Tupac Shakur’s Resurrection to see my Big Daddy in a clip. Moms would tell the story of opening night when they all got to go to the opening in Gainesville, Georgia in big fancy cars, and that the movie theater was held open specially for them, but she was only seven or so (wide plus or minus I’m not outing Moms age) at the time and the whole thing really didn’t make that big an impression on her. Plus Moms didn’t get to play the role of the daughter in the film, and my oldest uncle was also replaced for the same reason. They both had complexions too dark in the director’s opinion, so two neighbor kids were substituted in for the role of daughter, and oldest son, but Moms did make it into the film as the neighbor girl who gets a line.
So, a few months ago as my internet skills started to really sizzle it occurs to me to do the google on Palmour street, and of course I don’t know how it’s spelled and I come up with nothing until my way smarter wife tries alternate spellings, and I find there has been some bit of scholarship on what the film meant and some were using it as a teaching tool.
This 50s public service film shows us the stresses and strains of a typical family, and how the ways the parents handle things affect the children. But with a difference this family is African-American and lives in rural Georgia. The family portrayed is basically a healthy one, though the parents have some flaws. This is pretty amazing, given how much stress they are under from living in a world of poverty and oppression. In fact, this film stands in stark contrast to the other films being made during this time. Instead of being a happy housewife in a clean suburban home filled with modern conveniences, like, say, in Young Mans Fancy, the mother in this film does her laundry with a tub and washboard after she gets home from working all day something that is not a choice for her, but a necessity, as the family desperately needs the money. In fact, she really wants to be able to stay home with her kids, because her only childcare option for the preschoolers is to leave them with cranky Aunt Esther, who showers affection on the baby while treating the other kids like dirt. Still, she considers herself lucky, because she has a good man who works hard, brings home his pay, and showers the children with affection. And you can tell that in her world, that is pretty damn fortunate. The oldest child in the family, a little girl of about 8 or 9, sensibly runs away from a creepy stranger who shouts, Hey little girl, come here! but she doesnt live in the squeaky clean world of The Cautious Twins, or even in the Sid Davis universe, but in a run-down neighborhood that probably has guys like that on every corner, making that interaction seem disturbingly real. The film ends on a somewhat tragic note when the father is seriously injured in an industrial accident. The mother spends a tense night at the hospital, and is finally told by a nurse that her husband will pull through, but you know he was just inches away from death. Still, you know his injury will be very hard on the family, and the film ends like a Centron discussion film, by asking the viewer What would you do?
I look at this film now, and the first that hits home is that these were not sets. This was the actual house and neighborhood that Moms and her family grew up in. I don’t think I would be blowing Big Daddy’s horn to say he was elite in his era. He was a radio disc jockey, sold life insurance inside the black community, and he ran the shoeshine stand at the local barbershop. My Muhdear worked for the same family until she died, and they treated her better than they treated themselves. They considered themselves lucky and well off. Yet when I watched Palmour Street again it was hard for me to see past what struck me as poverty. That’s where my view from Palmour St. comes into focus, and it is one that I am thankful for. I can look back 50 odd years and just two generations upon my grandparents in their 20’s and see what tremendous strides we’ve all made. May your grandchildren consider you poor actually seems like a great toast for the new year.
They tore down Palmour Street in that incarnation in the early 70’s as part of a model cities program, Big Daddy and Muhdear raised the actual children in their family to all graduate from college although the oldest were obligated to attend black institutions there are worse things on earth than a Talladega or Moorehouse education