Q&A with Crispus Attucks Filmmaker Ted Green
Ted Green learned there’s more to Indiana than basketball while working on a story about Indiana basketball. The filmmaker’s latest documentary for partner WFYI, debuting this month at the Madame Walker Theatre, spotlights Crispus Attucks High School and examines our complicated history with race, showing how a school born of segregation grew into the pride of Indianapolis.
INTERVIEW BY MICHAEL RUBINO
Good stories have hooks, something that grabs a reader or audience and pulls them through. What hooked you on doing Attucks: the School That Opened a City?
When I started this project in 2005, I was with The Indianapolis Star and wanted to do a big project on the 50th anniversary of the 1955 basketball team—the first all-black team to win a state championship. I went over to the Attucks museum and met with the curator, a man named Dr. Gilbert Taylor, a graduate of 1955. He couldn’t have been nicer or more helpful, but he made it extremely clear to me that there was a lot more to this school than basketball. I mean, extremely clear. Not long after that, we held a town hall meeting as part of this 50th anniversary celebration. I got there early because I was nervous. And that’s when it happened. All of these graduates with their kids had come early, too, and they were walking the halls of the school and looking at the large composite pictures that lined the walls. These things are huge. Hundreds of faces in them. And these people would pore over them and point. ‘Look, there’s your grandma. There’s your grandpa.’ Then they’d walk back about 20 pictures. ‘Look, there’s your great-grandma, your great-grandpa.’ That’s when it hit me. I guess I had to see it in the eyes of these Attucks graduates. Not just how important the school was to them personally, but how it represented the experience of the African-American community in this city.
Right, it does mean so much, and then you have this obvious, inherent element of race. That’s a tall order.
It was a very difficult story to tell. Plus, frankly, there’s a ton of misinformation out there. It’s really only been in the last 30 or 40 years that historians in the state have been comfortable talking about the Klan presence here in the 1920s, which was huge and horrible. On top of the obvious discomfort—because a lot of the story is about race relationships, and in a lot of ways, Indianapolis doesn’t have a proud history in that—this is also a vast story. WFYI and I didn’t just start the story in 1922 when the school opened its doors. We wanted to look at the forces that created the school, and those started all the way back when Indiana became a state.
How do you cover that much ground?
Well, it’s difficult. You don’t just want to do a timeline. You need to find a way to steer a compelling narrative throughout all of this history. That was a great challenge. And, I’ll be honest: I think some graduates might be disappointed because I’m not able to touch on everyone or every five-year period. We had to look at it holistically and figure out the best way to capture the essence of its history.
“I think it’s an incredibly inspirational story—ultimately one everyone can be proud of.”
What is that through-line?
I’m going to have to let that be a surprise. But I can say that we found some amazing and compelling figures from Attucks’s first several years. Principals. Teachers. Students. I was drawn to the story by those pictures in the hallway, but as we really got into it, we ended up speaking to 15 people who were older than 90, and six that were older than 100. It just underscores how important it is to capture this history now, while some of the school’s earliest graduates are still with us. There’s no substitution for personal accounts.
And even though some of the material you gathered won’t make it into the documentary, it’s going to be put to good use, right?
That’s one of the things I’m happiest about with this project. All 50-plus interviews will be archived at the Indiana Historical Society. The other is that we have a team of incredible people from Butler University and IUPUI working closely with people from IPS to create a curriculum based on this project. We hope that will carry the lessons of Attucks on to future generations.
Oscar Robertson sat down with you for the film. He seems a somewhat misunderstood figure. What’s the status of his relationship with Indianapolis?
I’ve gotten to know Oscar pretty well. This is the second time I interviewed him on camera. He’s a very serious guy, a very passionate guy. I think I’d be putting words in his mouth if I tried to describe how he feels about Indianapolis. Certainly, some of his very best friends are here and he comes back here a lot. But, I think he took the slights of the time extremely seriously, and I think he still does. In a lot of ways, his team was treated very, very poorly at the time by the powers that be in Indianapolis. That’s just something that still hurts him.
Lots of ugly elements to this. Did that worry you?
I think it can only be a good thing to get the truth out. I don’t think it’s an ugly story at all. I think it’s an incredibly inspirational story—ultimately one everyone can be proud of.
I hope our viewers come out of this seeing a true Indianapolis hero that they didn’t know about before.
You also interviewed Colin Powell. How did that come about?
Again, my knowledge was so limited about Attucks at first. I knew about the basketball guys. I knew about Julia Carson. I knew about David Baker. But what I didn’t know was that the first two black generals from Indiana graduated from Attucks. And one of them, the very first, a man named Major General Harry Brooks Jr., mentored Colin Powell. He couldn’t have been a better interview. He thinks the world of Harry Brooks, and after doing this story, I do, too. I hope our viewers come out of this seeing a true Indianapolis hero that they didn’t know about before. In fact, I hope they find inspiration in several people who went to Crispus Attucks, many of whom are historically significant figures. This from a school that was segregated, one that nothing was expected of. That’s the magic of this story.
Your documentaries have been about iconic Hoosiers and have dealt with noteworthy moments in our state’s history. As a guy who grew up in Wisconsin, what conclusions have you drawn about the Indiana experience?
It’s so much more nuanced and rich than meets the eye for the newcomer. Frankly, that’s probably true of most places. But maybe more so here because people tend to be quiet, very polite. A lot of stuff, good and bad, has gone on behind the scenes.
WFYI has been your partner on these projects, but, be honest: How do you feel about pledge drives?
Well. Um. I’ve—I’ve worked several pledge drives. Boy, I really have to watch my words. I’ve worked several pledge drives. Let’s just say they are an occupational hazard. They can drive some people nuts, but pledge drives allow that station to do what it does. And it allows me to do my thing. So, in that sense, I’m all for them.