School name debate inspires documentary about Mary C. Snow
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Mike Youngren has looked through a lot of camera lenses in his life.
As the former director of production at West Virginia Public Broadcasting, he spent his days filming, editing and reviewing footage. Since his retirement a few years ago, Youngren has done video work for nonprofit organizations like Covenant House and the Center for Domestic Violence.
But it wasn't until he decided to film a community discussion last February about the renaming of the West Side's newest elementary school in honor of educator Mary C. Snow that he looked through his camera and saw something that truly moved him.
As he filmed the meeting with a borrowed camera, Youngren said he was inspired by the zeal of community leaders like the Rev. Matthew Watts who spoke in favor of the renaming.
"I'm looking through the lens, seeing the passion in their faces through the viewfinder, and I'm trying to figure out what's going on here," he said.
He could sense how important the issue was to those involved but said he realized how little he knew about the woman in question.
"A friend of mine asked me, 'Who is Mary Snow anyway? Why should she be getting a school named after her?' And I thought, that's a good question, maybe I'll find out. So I started to find out."
This curiosity led Youngren and a team of local academics on an 18-month journey to tell Snow's story. The end result is the recently completed documentary, "The Teacher," an hourlong examination of her life and times.
Using a blend of archival footage, original interviews and dramatizations of Snow's own words, the film paints a vivid portrait of how the educator overcame her circumstances growing up in segregated Charleston in the early 20th century to become the state's first female African American principal of an integrated school.
To help make the project a reality, Youngren recruited Catherine Breeze, an English and journalism teacher at St. Albans High School, and Bryan Ward, the assistant director of archives and history at the state Cultural Center.
Breeze also had been inspired by the contentious debate over the school's renaming and had begun to write Snow's biography. Ward was familiar with the story's historical context and had access to archive resources.
Within a few weeks of beginning the project, Breeze uncovered a 100-page transcript of an interview with Snow conducted at Marshall University in 1998 for its Appalachian History Archive project. A second interview was found in West Virginia State University's archives, followed by the discovery of a video interview shot by West Virginia Public Broadcasting shortly before Snow's death in 2011.
"We grabbed those up, made friends in the archive departments at Marshall and State, and I started to produce a draft of how I thought the thing ought to go," Youngren said.
The next step was to contact Snow's relatives for firsthand accounts of her life.
Her adopted son, Wynn Young, provided the filmmakers with more than 4,000 photographs and documents and offered his recollections. Snow's brother, Roscoe Crozier, invited the crew to his home in Cleveland for an interview and her sister, Josephine, flew into Charleston from New Jersey.
To tie the project together, musician Bob Thompson agreed to supply the film's narration, and poetess Crystal Good recorded readings from sections of the interview transcripts.
With all the pieces in place, Youngren began to assemble them into a cohesive narrative, knitting the elements together on his home computer.
The completed project will be submitted to the Cultural Center's archives, becoming part of its permanent collection.
Youngren said he has no plans to officially release or distribute the film but will make it available to anyone who is interested.
"I'd like to see it available for whoever the heck wants to view it," he said. "I'll make it that way; DVDs are cheap."
With the film, Youngren said he hoped not only to satisfy his own curiosity, but also to inspire conversations about race relations and civil rights.
"I hope that people are interested and that this generates a discussion about the way we treat each other," he said.
Youngren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact writer Charles Young at email@example.com or 304-348-1796