A new documentary titled We Are, Because We Were and an accompanying immersive experience, Bridging the Gap: Past, Present & Future, celebrate the rich contributions of African Americans to the city of Winston-Salem. Both will premiere this weekend in the Twin City.

The Winston-Salem African American Archive is home to thousands of documents, photos and artifacts tucked away in boxes and on shelves, chronicling the rich history of Black people in this city. This documentary project — a collaboration with the University of North Carolina School of the Arts — was designed to make the archives more visible in the community, and spur renewed interest in digitizing the collection.

Curator Hilda Willis says We Are, Because We Were helps accomplish both goals.

"Creating a space for people to see how important history is, not only in terms of photographing ourselves and our families and our events, but our oral history," says Willis. "So, the documentary is bringing the oral tradition back to the forefront. And so I'm really proud of that."

Willis, who was a student at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University 40 years ago, says this project has been an education for her as well.

"I was very much familiar with the contributions that happened through that time period with African Americans, and did not realize how significant it was for Winston-Salem — how different in a lot of ways, but also the similarities," she says. "And so for those two cities to be so close in proximity and the history not being known was just sad to me, but made this project even more exciting."

And that history is as vast as it is varied. The documentary focuses on several key stories: Safe Bus, the Black-owned transportation company that allowed African Americans to ride at the front of the bus during the Jim Crow South; The Winston-Salem Chronicle newspaper which focused on the African American community for more than a half-century; the “Katie B” the Twin City’s first publicly-operated hospital to treat only African American patients; and the origins and impact of famed brickmaker and entrepreneur George Black, the son of formerly enslaved parents, who came to Winston-Salem as a child, became nationally and internationally famous for his craft, and in many ways helped build this city.

Wake Forest University documentary film program alumnus Rodney Wilds directed We Are, Because We Were. The Greensboro native says setting out to cover it all was a daunting task.

"The idea was to get into the mindset of someone who was coming to the archive and picking up a box, and not knowing what's inside of it, opening it up and seeing all of this history sort of spill out," says Wilds. 

He says as the youngest member of this project, in telling these stories he’s learned to listen, be more open-minded and willing to rethink his preconceptions.

"You know too often — especially within maybe academia or just within history in general — a lot of the past is reduced to statistics or trends," he says. "And the reality is that these are people with hopes, dreams and faults and regrets and that’s like all of us."

Wilds says he hopes presenting these stories in this honest way will help reach even those in the community who may question the need for studying Black history.  

Curator Hilda Willis will further engage audiences through her immersive self-guided tour Bridging the Gap: Past, Present & Future. There’ll be conversations with the documentary team, African American Archive president Billy Rich, music, food, story sharing and more.

"You will have an opportunity to see up close, to hear — all of the senses — and just commune with everyone that are coming to find out what this whole experience is," says Willis. "We Are, Because We Were, and the immersive experience will help people understand that they are a part of the fabric of this history — even if it's African American history — they will find out how they fit. That we're all a part of the same fabric."

Willis says she hopes audience members will leave the event knowing more about the major role African Americans played in the building of Winston-Salem. 

We Are, Because We Were screens Friday and Bridging the Gap: Past, Present & Future opens Saturday in the Center for Design Innovation in Winston-Salem.

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