Amistad has received a new preservation transfer of the 1972 film “A Place to Start,” thanks to a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, which will make the film available digitally for the first time.
The film, part of the Community Relations Council of Greater New Orleans Records, documents a 1971 gathering of students from across the New Orleans public high school system, who were brought together by the council to discuss the “social, cultural, racial and administration problems” they faced. Students were divided into small, racially diverse groups to share their ideas, before convening for a conversation with Superintendent of Schools Dr. Gene Geisert.
The students speak candidly within their groups, sharing their differing viewpoints. On certain topics the students find themselves in easy agreement, such as noting poor communication between students and administration and a lack of activities. On other subjects, students ask each other to clarify their stances. In one exchange, a white student asks a black student, “I want to know why you said ‘We have to fight the white establishment.’” The black student responds, explaining what her experience has been by trying to put the white student in her shoes: “Okay, you go to our school and you’re black, and everything is white around you…”
Filmed soon after the height of the Civil Rights Movement and school desegregation in New Orleans, the subject of integration is still very much at the forefront of the conversation in this film. Students express differing viewpoints on the subject and have a nuanced discussion regarding the social difficulties of navigating an integrated school. Many of the students present still attend all-black schools, and they use the opportunity to ask Superintendent Geisert about why that is so - and to question the distribution of resources across schools. Geisert defends the districting of the schools and explains that the city’s majority black population means that the attendance of white students at every school is a difficult prospect in practice.
The African-American students present are straightforward in their discussions about the racism they regularly face at school. One student recounts a story about a friend who was discouraged by a counselor from applying to the predominantly white engineering school she had been planning to attend and was instead pointed toward a local HBCU and asked “Why don’t you be nice little maid?” Other students share similarly frustrating experiences.
Ultimately, the discussions lead students to the conclusion that to enact any change, unity is needed both within cultural groups and across them. “School is a good place to start,” one student notes, because people from all sorts of differing backgrounds find themselves thrust together there and need to find a way to communicate with each other, as difficult as that may be. “It’s not a fight against black and white, really,” another student observes, “It’s a fight against society, broad-minded people against narrow-minded people.”
To view “A Place to Start,” please contact the Amistad Research Center Reference Department.