Racial disparities in COVID-19 case counts and national protests against police brutality following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have brought race issues to the forefront of the public consciousness.
As a consequence, organizations like the Montana Historical Society have been prompted to reevaluate what narratives are perpetuated in schools, museums and other educational hubs, as well as how they can make diverse voices more accessible.
The Montana Historical Society is not shying away from this nuanced and long term work. This week, the state museum was awarded a $50,000 grant to produce a short documentary on African American history in Montana. The grant is through the National Trust for Preservation as part of the African American Cultural Heritage fund.
It was one of 27 grants awarded in this week’s announcement.
“The idea was to introduce people to the topic of Black history in Montana and lead people to the website,” said Kate Hampton, the Montana Historical Society’s Community Preservation Coordinator.
While the Montana Historical Society has been working on its African American resources project for the last 16 years by compiling archival collections, photographs and census information, the organization has recently been exploring ways to make this history more accessible to the general public on diverse platforms.
“We have a great platform on our website, the Montana African American Resources website, but we were looking to see how we could make it even better and bring it to an even larger audience,” Hampton said.
Hampton hopes to cover the earliest arrival of African Americans in Montana and highlight chronological themes from different eras. She wants to celebrate the myriad of contributions Montana’s African American population has made to the culture and community.
But she also looks to “identify and document the hard truths of being a member of a minority community in the state over the past millennia,” Hampton said
The documentary currently has funding for a product 10 to 15 minutes in length, and if the Montana Historical Society is approved for supplemental funding from the Greater Montana Foundation, it could run up to 25 minutes.
As such, Hampton acknowledged that the documentary is limited, functioning as a gateway to further primary and secondary resources rather than an end in itself.
“At this point, we presented it as an overview, an introduction to the topic, for now, because that’s what we have funding for,” Hampton said.
The Montana Historical Society hopes to make the documentary viewable on local broadcasting networks and post it on its YouTube channel and website, complete with links for easy access to extended information on the individuals and events covered.
While they first must undergo a bid process to select a production company, Hampton said it will be “a priority to have black voices and black artists and black people involved.”
The documentary does not stand on its own. It is one piece of the Montana Historical Society’s Documenting and Sharing Montana’s African American Heritage project. Part of this project includes compiling places across Montana associated with African American History in a National Register of Historic Places document so they are both marked and preserved.
They also have commissioned poet Sean Hill, who focuses on African American history and research, to write several poems to be included in the documentary.
Hampton said the documentary is expected to be completed by August 2021, but it is only the beginning of the Montana Historical Society’s efforts to make the histories of Montana’s marginalized groups more accessible to everyday citizens.
“We are always thrilled to keep learning, and to keep being inclusive,” Hampton said.
Audrey Pettit is a rising junior at Barnard College of Columbia University and an intern at the Missoula Current. She welcomes any constructive discourse about her reporting; you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.