ITHACA, N.Y. — Ithaca’s collective memory has a major hole, says Photosynthesis Productions President Deborah Hoard — one that she and collaborator Che Broadnax look to fill with their upcoming film, “Civil Warriors.”
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Between December 3, 1863, and February 18, 1864, 26 black men went to the St. James A.M.E. Zion church, stood on Cleveland Street in downtown Ithaca, and enlisted in the 26th Regiment of the U.S. Colored Infantry.
The men fought throughout the remainder of the war, primarily in South Carolina, before being discharged following the war’s conclusion.
“These men had to fight for the right to fight,” Hoard said.
Included among these men was Edward Sorrell, whom Hoard described as a sometimes-forgotten hero of Ithaca’s past.
“[He] was killed in South Carolina in the end of 1864,” she explained, “and his name is not listed […] that means we didn’t know his story.”
Correcting a faulty memory was one of the major motivations for Hoard and Broadnax in producing the film, which, through a spoken word narrative, seeks to shed light on the experiences that these men had, and confronts the struggle they faced with a dual identity as both soldiers, and, to many, second class citizens.
“There are some amazing stories that we just don’t know about,” Hoard said, “for example, here in Ithaca, in Dewitt Park, there are all of the monuments for all of the war dead. The Union Colored troops are not on a stone in that park.”
Hoard further noted a somewhat compartmentalized approach to American history, a trend that she said collaborators hoped to break with their film, saying,
“I think that the problem I see is that people think Black history is February […] they don’t think of it as American history.”
Hoard said that, along with other collaborators, she hopes the film will serve as building block upon which the people of Ithaca can come to understand the somewhat troubled history of the town.
“For people in Ithaca to get to know that there were actual slave owners and slaves here in Tompkins County. Trying to understand how we got here today, I think we need to look back, using a lot of different perspectives,” she said.
The film found its origins in the play “I Am a Man, Too,” written by local historian Carroll Kammen; however, it was re-written as a spoken-word narrative by poet Ben Porter-Lewis.
Featuring local actors, as well as those from both universities, the production was filmed and produced locally, drawing upon local funding for support. Hoard said that the project represents the fruits of a 12-year process, which began in 2003; however she said the timing was fitting.
“It was last year, when we were coming up on the 150th anniversary of these men fighting and dying; I thought it just seemed that we just had to finish it,” she said.
The film is slated for its final pre-release screening Thursday at Cinemopolis, though organizers urge those who hope to see the film to purchase tickets online in advance, as they expect the showing to be sold out.