SPRINGFIELD — Brian Crowdson sat recently at a desk in his studio, Crowdson Creative, reflecting on his early attempts to get a documentary about the 1908 Springfield Race Riot off the ground.
A few things conspired against the "White Heat/Black Ashes" project, which Crowdson started in 2006 and hoped to complete by the race riot's centennial in 2008.
More than a decade after that milestone, Crowdson said the timing is still right to look at one of the city's seminal events.
"With our whole political climate today — the headlines in the newspapers about every day with racial perspectives — I think it's unfortunate, but true, that not much has changed in some ways in the 111 years that have passed," Crowdson said. "It seems to be regressing a little bit."
People are still afraid to talk about the race riot that would give rise to the founding of the NAACP, Crowdson contended. As proof, Crowdson sought out a Facebook message someone sent him about dredging up the past.
"'Watch and see,'" Crowdson read from the message. "'Nothing good will come of this. I bet a million dollars all this digging up the past will always cause more problems. It always does.'"
"It's upsetting (when I read that message)," he admitted. "It's hard to believe, that someone could be so defensive about this so many years later that they're not even willing to look at it with open eyes, with an unbiased opinion."
Crowdson said progress on the self-funded documentary got kicked off again last year. Most recently, he's partnered with Gina Lathan and Stacy Grundy, two of the owners, along with Kenneth Lockhart, of Route History, as the documentary's co-producers. David Antoine, the producer and writer for the 1996 documentary "Springfield Had No Shame," also about the race riot, has been brought on board for Crowdson's project.
Crowdson has wrapped up several interviews — including those with author and historian James Loewen (author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me") and Preston Jackson, whose two-section bronze-cast sculpture memorializing the race riot stands in Union Square Park — though he doesn't have a timeline in mind for the project.
Crowdson said one of the stories he wants to tell in the documentary is the economic impact of the loss of African American businesses in the race riot. Other business districts were wiped out or never fully recovered from race riots in Chicago, Cairo, Tulsa and East St. Louis, he pointed out.
Crowdson said he was messaged just recently by a family whose descendants owned and operated a business but were forced to flee during the race riot.
"They were able to get the house back, but apparently they were never able to get their business back," Crowdson said. "That's a very personal connection. (These people) had fled (Springfield) and came back, but as far as her family knows they were never able to regain their business life like they had before."
Two African American men lynched in the race riot — Scott Burton and William Donnegan — were business owners, Crowdson said.
The race riot, Lathan said, was "impactful and detrimental" from an economic standpoint.
"(The race riot) stopped economic engines around the black community," she said. "That isn't discussed as much (in this story). Successful black business owners haven't been given their due."
"White Heat/Black Ashes" isn't a simple re-telling of the facts, Lathan said. For many, the story will be new.
"It's time we share the story," Lathan said, "and make it part of the conversation."
Crowdson is also tapping into excavation work Fever River Research is doing on black-owned homes in the city and the black resistance movement to mobs that formed to riot.
"The goal I had in mind was to get the African American community more involved this time around because it really isn't my story to tell," Crowdson added. "I want this to be a more community-oriented story."