A Lebanon High School senior who created “Good Morning, Mrs. Ford”, a documentary about a Black teacher who faced discrimination, is the winner of a prestigious Princeton University award.
Abram Barker pieced together the twelve-minute masterpiece. It landed him Princeton University’s Prize in Race Relations award for the region this year.
Barker, who has spent his entire life in the southern Missouri town of Lebanon, showcased Mrs. Eleanor Ford – one of the district’s only African American educators. Ford died about thirty years ago, but Barker’s film goes above and beyond to keep her memory alive in the town of 14,400 people.
He brought attention to her life by interviewing her family and other people who knew her – and whose lives she touched. Barker’s film was part of Lebanon High School’s first-ever Black History Month, to recognize the first Black teacher in the integrated school.
“After integration, the school district didn’t fire her,” he said. “They, however, were trying to demote her in a sense. So, they gave her the position of librarian. Inadvertently, they just gave her more time with students and with an exponentially larger number of students. Every student goes to the library, every student interacts with the librarian. So, instead of teaching one single class per year, she’s talking to all of them. This means more kids see her and more kids interact with her and now we’ve got possibly hundreds of people who still remember her fondly and can go on about her, as we did with our interviewees. That’s part of the not facing part of history – and how we’ve sort of ignored it.”
One person who remembers Mrs. Ford is Barker’s mother, Elizabeth.
“Eleanor was my librarian, from the time that I moved to Missouri from Arizona, in 1980 to sixth grade, which would have been around 1984. She was just such a powerful educator, and just a storyteller, and someone that just had such an incredible impact on the youth of the community for several generations. I didn’t always do what I was supposed to do when I was at school,” she said. “I ended up in the hallway a lot and I just remember that woman had a way of knowing exactly what the needs were of the students. And so, if I was in trouble in the hallway, I knew I was about to receive some extra attention and guidance, and that’s what I was looking for all along with whatever I did that put me out there. And you’ll see in the documentary that everybody that spoke about her has a specific memory and something that she did for them.”
Stephanie Hasty, Barker’s former English teacher, said he is able to elicit responses from people that are afraid to talk. She said Barker showcased Ford’s life as an important educator in Lebanon and to reveal how Mrs. Ford’s quiet resilience was a form of resistance.
“Getting people to communicate their stories, and I think in a small town, it’s very hard. It’s very hard for people of color to communicate with white people because they’re afraid that their story is not going to get told right, or that you’re going to, for lack of a better word, whitewash it and turn it into white savior stories. And so, I believe that Abram went out of his way to not do those things, to let the stories of these people in Lebanon be told, so we could see them as they were, especially like Mrs. Ford, seeing her as she was. Some of the things that the town showed – not so good, right. I think that the more we communicate about those things, the closer we are to that reconciliation that we keep on talking about and I think that Abram did a good job of making a bridge,” said Hasty.
As an award winner, Barker gets $1,000 and is invited to a symposium on race where award candidates can meet with others involved in racial justice work. The award, founded by a group of alumni, has been around since 2003.
Victoria Goldson, the chair of Princeton University selection committee for the St. Louis region, has been supporting the prize since nearly its inception. She has been the chair for the past five years and said Barker’s submission stood out.
“I don’t actually recall a winner outside of the St. Louis metropolitan area,” said Goldson. “Previously, most of our winners are engaging within their high school, doing different projects that usually involve difficult conversations or advocacy for changes at schools or change in school policies. Abram’s application was very unusual, because first of all, he wasn’t in St. Louis, but Abram’s also was video journalism. It was telling the story of an activist of a woman who faced tremendous discrimination in her time within the community, and really became just a resilient leader. I mean, she didn’t quit, she didn’t leave Lebanon. And instead, she was a true educator. She put the kids first and she formed tremendous bonds with members of the community. So, what Abram did was he really amplified her voice and her story for the community. And that’s a wonderful form of racial equity work. A lot of times people think racial equity work is just kids protesting or kids standing up for one thing that they believe in, but it can also be kids amplifying their history, amplifying the voices in the past and the leaders in the past.”
Eric Adams, another teacher at Barker’s school, said Barker took the documentary to the next level.
“You think about talking to our veterans about how rich that history is in those war stories,” said Adams. “Well, we have a lot of war stories in Lebanon. And these have to do with the hurt that it comes from, prejudice, racism. He’s really the real deal when it comes to documentaries. What I hope is that people will see ‘Good morning, Mrs. Ford’ as a positive story – as an inspiration, but also a reality check to our communities that we have to face our history.”
The greatest lesson Barker said he has learned through this film is stories, like Mrs. Ford’s, exist within communities like his.
“And as time goes on, more and more people don’t discuss them, and they get lost. The importance of documenting these events is so that they’re kept alive, they’re still shared because Lebanon is not very great at acknowledging its history. It’s not very great at remembering the not so pretty parts about it. And while the documentary doesn’t really go into that, it goes into a community that was sort of lost and not very present anymore,” said Barker.
Elizabeth Barker explains what she hopes the award tells her about her son.
“I hope that it tells me that they were paying attention all along,” she said. “Being an educator myself, I hope that students leave my classroom with, like curiosity about the world outside of Laclede County and wanting to go and embrace people. I’m a visual art teacher. I think that the visual arts is how we make connections to ourselves and to others. With Abram winning this prize, and with Abram, also going into a field that is related to the visual arts and part of the visual arts, I like to think that it means that they’ve been paying attention all along, and that they’re going to take things out into their future and build on it in ways that Eric and I can’t imagine right now.”
Abram Barker plans to attend the University of Missouri and pursue a degree in journalism.
To hear the Show Me Today interview, click below (23:00).
To view the documentary, “Good Morning, Mrs. Ford”, click below.
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