Behind-the-Scenes with Eric Eddings

What did you know about this story while growing up in Bogalusa? Did you already know the subjects of this documentary before, or did you meet them in the process of making it?

Well, I’d first like to note that I’m not from Bogalusa. My mom grew up there and that side of the family is still living there. I spent most of my childhood summers there. So while Bogalusa is very familiar to me there’s a lot about the city that I don’t know.

In 2015, I interviewed my mom for a family oral history project I was working on in my spare time. During the course of that interview, she mentioned a big event when she was roughly 12, where people were walking around with guns and the FBI was supervising the kids trips to school because the KKK was so bad in the area. She doesn’t remember a whole lot of it, but it really piqued my interest.

Bogalusa is a pretty small town, and while many of my family members didn’t personally know the characters in the story, they very much knew of them. They were able to ask friends of the family for introductions or contact information which was very helpful for progressing the story and establishing trust while talking to them.

Barbara - and many others - asked me about my relationship to Bogalusa. Once they heard my mom was from the town and that I was Black myself, they were a lot more comfortable talking at length and on the record.

How did you know where to START this episode (with the story of an arsonist attempting to burn down Barbara's house)?

We had a strong feeling we’d begin with the arson attempt from the start. It was so shocking to learn that after all this time, Barbara’s family was still being targeted in this way. I mean, the woman is trying to make a museum... It really sets the stakes for why this important history was still urgent.

But another reason the fire worked was the premise of the show. Undone was meant to go back to events that made national news and tell you what has happened since, and how that affects things today. So much of what happened during the Civil Rights era feels like “history.” Starting with the troubling effects of that history prepares you to look back at that time in a new way.

In covering such a historical story, how do you know where to summarize a series of events, and when to slow down and really dig into a moment?

This was really difficult. The Deacons were technically around for about six years if you count from the original group's founding up until they finally stopped organizing. That’s a really long time for a 30 minute program. The Bogalusa chapter, in many ways, was the most well known of the organization, so that helped focus things a little bit. In addition, we knew that the federal government’s initial intervention was a pretty significant climax to the Bogalusa story.

That allowed us to focus and really slow down on setting up Bogalusa and guiding you through the group's formation -- up to Hattie Mae Hill and the shooting of Alton Crowe. There’s sooo much that happens even in that short period of time. So it was important to linger on stories that felt like they provided a sense of forward momentum. That said, I didn’t want to dwell too long on story after story of Black people being brutalized.

After the DOJ steps in, it was a matter of telling the story of the Deacons winding down and getting to Barbara. This was REALLY hard because the Deacons were still active and needed after that event, and their end was more of a fade than the result of a specific event. Leaving these stories out was really difficult to me, personally. The time that my mom remembered (about FBI agents supervising kids trips to school) was during the Deacon’s fight for school desegregation. That happened after the injunction. That said, each time we tried to include stories like this, it felt like a distraction from Barbara’s story, which we wanted to keep front and center.

I have to say a big thank you to the rest of the Undone team: Pat Walters, Larissa Anderson, and Alan Burdick, as they were invaluable for helping me boil this down while still alluding to the fact that not everything was resolved after the injunction.

Do you have any advice for making stories from the past sound present, and keep it riveting, engaging?

This is why I’m really thankful for the very premise of Undone . They looked at history stories that are still relevant today. Thinking about stories in this way made them a lot more urgent. It also allowed me to make connections to current events, like the shooting of Alton Crowe and the continued necessity of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Find someone who is still alive to help tell the story. Telling this through Barbara helped a lot. She’s just a few years older than my own mom. I could ask her how she felt about an event and her answer was so much more powerful than reading an account in a book. And hearing how Barbara connected her father’s legacy to the events of today made me feel a lot more comfortable about making similar connections.

Also -- the sound design and scoring really lifts a story. With this story, it went a long way in helping to move things forward. To that I owe the biggest of shout outs to our engineer, Bobby Lord. He wrote all original scoring in the episode and is generally pretty sick with whatever he touches.

The other thing I would double down on, is that this is a story that has deep connections to me. Had I not really had an extensive conversation with my mom, I wouldn’t have learned about these events that happened in such proximity to my own family. Those connections made the story feel very important for a community that I am apart of but also for me personally. If I was talking to someone else looking for stories, I’d recommend starting with the ones lurking in your own backyard.

Did having family in Bogalusa impact the final sound of the story?

Having family there affected the piece in many ways. Most importantly, I’m familiar with what it means to be Black in Bogalusa then and now. I could talk to my mom about the ways that racism there touched my family’s daily life. I heard stories from cousins about what it was like to work side by side with people known to be in the KKK. In addition, I had direct access to many people who can talk about what it’s like to be Black in Bogalusa right now. While they recognize that Bogalusa has come a long way from the violence of the 60’s, these people were not surprised by the suspected arson at Barbara Hick’s home in 2012.

In terms of the nuts and bolts, having this personal stake in the history there really helped with finding people, but it was really, really challenging to get white people to talk to me about the 60’s. I called the police force, City Hall, tracked down people from old yearbooks, and many other tactics to try to shake loose anyone who might go on record. After that only turned up one person, I realized early on that I might need to talk to people on the street. Having spent a lot of time in Bogalusa, I knew there were a few places I could go where people congregated. Walmart was one of them.

What inspired the idea to talk to white folks at Walmart? Was it difficult to get people to speak with you?

It was literally my last resort. As I mentioned, I went through some pretty intense hurdles to try to get white people on record for this story. I located many people connected to the story in significant ways, but they would not go on record. I then repeated the same steps - combing through yearbooks, calling for city records, etc. to just try to white people living in Bogalusa during that time. That also yielded few results. People were very afraid of being attached to the story. Many said they didn’t want family members to be implicated or to be pegged as racist for participating. I’m really grateful for Harold Ritchie, a white former state Congressman. He felt it was important to speak on record and that the town hadn’t really healed from those events. But aside from that, we got nothing -- until we went to Walmart.

Pat and I thought going to Walmart that day might shake something loose. People avoided me for the most part. The ones who would speak only wanted to talk about the events occurring in Baton Rouge. At the time, I was in Bogalusa, Baton Rouge was on the brink of riot after the shooting of Alton Sterling. It made sense that people’s thoughts were with those events. After a few hours, Pat and I got kicked out of the parking lot. It was a pretty rough experience for me, talking to people who so comfortably shared those opinions. We put that tape away and didn’t come back to it for a while. Only after listening a few months removed did we realize how clearly it helped us make our connection to the events of today.

Did making this documentary change your relationship to Bogalusa?

It changed my relationship to Bogalusa completely.

I’d looked at the town as a place of refuge. One where I spent time with my grandparents, aunt, and cousins, at play. Now, I’m pretty steeped in its history and its present in a way I’d never expected. It has also casted my family in a completely new light. I look at what they’ve lived through and sit back in awe. I’m also more invested in the town’s future. I talk to Barbara fairly regularly. I can’t wait till she completes the museum. I look forward to taking my own daughter there to teach her about the legacy of the town where her Nana grew up.