ABOVE PHOTO: Some of the citizens of Fair Hope with documentary co-producer/directors S. Epatha Merkerson and Rockell Metcalf.
(Photo by Lisa Berg)
By Mike Bruton
During the fourth week of each September near the environs of Greer Hill on the outskirts of Uniontown, Alabama heaven and hell collides.
There the Fair Hope Benevolent Society was established in 1888. It was one of many such organizations created by Southern Blacks for the primary purpose of giving former slaves a proper burial following the Great Emancipation.
Fair Hope was born of religion, piety and the love of God and it survives today, largely, from proceeds that come straight from an annual festival of art, food, gambling, alcohol, drugs and sex.
It is this uncomfortable and ironic arrangement that prompted actor S. Epatha Merkerson, known best for her role as Lt. Anita Van Buren in the television series “Law & Order,” and Alabama native Rockell Metcalf, Vice President and Chief Counsel of Amerprise Financial, Inc. to produce and co-direct the documentary “The Contradictions of Fair Hope.”
In the beginning the members of the society paid dues of 10 cents a month to buy caskets, which sold for about $37 each back then, to care for the sick and to finance burials. The group soon decided to hold an annual event with sermons and white-clad members celebrating the slave emancipation.
Nobody 124 years ago and, to a degree, even days ago, could have imagined the crowds of somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 descending on the land around Greer School for four days of absolute decadence.
The film’s narrator Whoopi Goldberg told the Newark Star-Ledger, the documentary presents, “splendid contradictions of deity and the devil, preaching and prostitution, gospel and guns, devotion and drugs, heaven and hell.”
The award-winning film will be screened Tuesday at 7 PM at the International House, which is located at 3701 Chestnut St.
The organization still hold monthly meetings and collect dues but most of the revelers who come each September have little or no knowledge of the Fair Hope Benevolent Society. They know this event as the “Footwash.”
That term might have something to do with the Baptist practice of foot-washing but many believe it comes from an insult a city dweller might use to emphasize that a trip to countryside for an event outside of Uniontown would require the visitor to wash his/her feet before returning.
“I’d say upwards of 100,000 people descend on this area like clockwork without advertising or promotion, “explained Merkerson, who has an Emmy, Golden Globe, SAG, an NAACP Image Award and two Tony Award nominations to her credit. “It might be a little more or a little less but tens of thousands of people descend on this area for four nights of pure debauchery.”
The idea of the film was conceived when Metcalf had a conversation with his grandmother four years ago. She is 99 and has been a Fair Hope member since she was 17.
“She is quite a character,” said Metcalf of his grandmother. “She lives on a farm in Alabama alone. She is the oldest member of the Fair Hope Benevolent Society, which is one of the last African American benevolent societies in the country.”
Growing up, Metcalf said he knew little about the happenings down in the woods because if he walked into a room where adults were discussing the Footwash, they reduced the talk to whispers and discontinued it altogether.
“We were talking about slavery,” Metcalf said, speaking of the more recent talk with his grandmother. “She was telling me about my great, great grandmother, who was a slave. She was freed as a result of the Emancipation and she was talking about her emotions.
“The conversation turned from a conversation about my great, great grandmother to a conversation about how Fair Hope and other African American benevolent societies in the South helped newly freed slaves make the transition from slavery to freedom.
“My grandmother said, `Baby, that’s all they had.’ That’s when it dawned on me the Fair Hope Benevolent Society had a more noble mission. I thought it would make a great documentary because the history has been lost. So I approached S. Epatha Merkerson and that’s how it came to be.”
The slide from sermons to sex didn’t happen overnight.
In the 1920s, society members started to bring fish sandwiches so after the ceremony, which has been held in the Greer School since virtually the beginning, at what they called “The Turnout” outside the building.
Closer to 1930, came the moonshine as members realized they could grow their fundraising significantly with the introduction of drinking. In the 1940s the gambling started and the 1960s brought the prostitutes and after that came the drugs. Then came the guns.
“In ’07, a woman found her husband in one of what they called the prostitution pits,” Merkerson explained, “and she (left) and came back and shot him.”
There have been discussions over time about separating the prayer ceremony from the Footwash but the membership, as disapproving as they are about the unbridled celebration, remains steadfast in keeping the tradition intact.
“Most of the members,”said Metcalf, “are pretty stubborn, saying, `No, this is where it all started. This is where we belong. We’ll take the hell along with the heaven.”
That is a big reason why Merkerson , making her directorial debut with this project, said she was drawn to this as a subject of a documentary film. This dichotomy between the sacred and the unsavory cries out for an explanation and that explanation calls for a history lesson.
“What is important about the film is that it is a teaching tool,” said the veteran of stage and screen, who is looking to moving into being a film director as well as an actor. “I believe that it is a part of history and if you don’t know where you come from it’s kind of difficult to know where you’re going.
“We’re clear about what happened before Emancipation and then there’s this huge (gap) where we end up at the Civil Rights Movement. There were so many things going on between that time. Folks were surviving. They were taking care of each other.
“They were creating organizations and churches and communities that were thriving,” she continued, “and I think it’s important for old folks to remember it and for young folks to know it.”
When the party-goers were interviewed for “The Contradictions of Fair Hope” they had no clue that their party was attached to a prayer ceremony that has been held in a one-room building (Greer School burned in 1955 but was renovated on site) for more than 124 years.
“We’re losing touch with a history that allowed Black folks to survive in this country and want good things for their families,” Merkerson concluded. “We’re losing kids in school. We’re losing brothers in prison.
“There’re so many things happening in our communities that this film has a truthful purpose to educate about a history that is very important to our struggle. It’s a call to action for us to start talking again.”
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