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Steve Crump finds niche in revealing African American history

by Michael J. Solender

Steve Crump finds niche in revealing African American history

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Picture by Steve Crump

March 9, 2011

Steve Crump leaned back into his chair, smiled, and told me in a most convincing tone that he wasn’t even close to being the best storyteller in his family. Reflecting on his upbringing in Kentucky, Crump said the best storytellers were members of his extended family, including his grandmother and her two siblings. Just outside of Louisville, Crump was entertained daily around the supper table with tales that spoke to the heart of an agrarian culture, where people worked the land and enjoyed a special relationship with the soil.

“I come from a long line of storytellers,” he says, describing the environs of New Hope in Nelson County, Kentucky. “There were all sorts of stories about farming, the distilleries, our ancestors, and the news of the day. My elders were grandchildren of formers slaves. I was captivated by their tales and simply took it all in as a child growing up.” Now a reporter and anchor for local news station WBTV, Crump has carried on the storytelling tradition by making independent documentary films for the past two decades, telling nuanced tales that speak to the African American experience.

His vast body of work spans more than 20 films including, Before Rosa: The Unsung Contribution of Sarah Mae Flemming, the story of the little-known Civil Rights heroine named Sarah Mae Flemming who refused to give up her seat as directed by municipal ordinance in Columbia, SC, 17 months before the more widely covered incident in Alabama involving Rosa Parks. His film, Lessons from the Lunch Counter, covers the events of February 1-6, 1960, in which four African-American students sat at a segregated "whites only" lunch counter in the Greensboro, NC, Woolworth's store.

Louisville's Own Ali examines the life and times of legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali who claimed to be so fast he could “run through a hurricane and not get wet.” Carolina Bebop Kings taps into Crump’s love for jazz and connects jazz greats Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk to their North Carolina roots.

His most recent film, Sojourn of the Strings, debuted in Charlotte this past November and traces the roots and evolution of the banjo from Africa to America. The journey follows the banjo from slave cabins on the plantation, through the minstrel era, into Appalachia and eventually into the hands of folk legend Pete Seeger, North Carolina’s Joe Thompson, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Crump says his work on Sojourn reinforced his experience that in the African tradition, stories pass from generation to generation representing oral histories rich with context. “There is,” Crump notes, “a danger or worry to be aware of when stories are not written down. What was embellished? What got lost in translation? As a filmmaker I’m always aware of this and look to best represent the truth.”

Crump says that when doing research for his films, he recognizes that interviewing people who experienced events firsthand brings an emotional perspective and a type of accuracy that wouldn’t necessarily come from the mainstream media coverage of the day. He says this was particularly the case with the coverage surrounding the lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro. “The coverage found from people there on scene and in African American newspapers such as The Pittsburg Courier and The Amsterdam News provided a perspective and elements from blacks who were there that the history books don’t necessarily have.”

For Crump, a career in broadcast journalism began by spinning top 40 tunes as a DJ in Richmond, KY, in 1980. It wasn’t long before the man with the rich baritone voice worked his way into a television news internship and soon was in front of the camera. Prior to landing in Charlotte, Crump held reporting and anchor posts in Kentucky, Orlando, and Savannah. He has also served as reporter and host for a public affairs program in Detroit and a free-lance correspondent with Black Entertainment Television.

Crump’s predilection for filmmaking grew from a “wild idea” born in 1993. He went to Somalia on behalf of WBTV to report on Operation Restore Hope. He said his experience there was a life changing one that shook him to the core, “creatively, culturally and spiritually.”

His idea to return to Africa the following year came upon the heels of Nelson Mandela being elected president of South Africa and numerous North Carolina connections Crump saw in Africa. First Union Bank was the first U.S. based bank to affiliate with an African financial institution, wine from a South African vineyard was being sold at Harris Teeter, and then Governor Hunt was recruiting business from South Africa to the Tar Heel State. Crump, on his time off, took borrowed cameras to travel to South Africa. There he shot the first of his many documentaries. Carolina Concerns and the New South Africa was the film that infected Crump with the bug and he has never looked back.

He has made several return visits to Africa and cites a piece he did on a Sudanese grade school as one of the most moving stories he’s ever covered. There, the price of learning is steep as the children are schooled high up in the local mountains for their protection and safety from warring factions. With no electricity, make-shift desks, and dirt floors, the children face countless hardships with a good nature and determination to learn.

“In over 20 projects, I’ve never had full funding,” says Crump. Many of his films have been picked up by PBS affiliates such as WTVI locally and KET in Kentucky where Crump’s Soujourn aired during Black History Month at the station.

His work has not gone unnoticed. Among his many honors, Crump has won several regional Emmy Awards, four National Headliner Awards, the National Association of Black Journalists Salute to Excellence, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund Humanitarian of the Year, and the National Council of Negro Women Charlotte Chapter’s Man of the Year. In 2008, Crump was awarded a Distinguished Achievement in Documentary Filmmaking award by the Arts and Science Council. He was in Nashville earlier this year where his film, Sitting in to Move Forward, was recognized with a Regional Emmy during the observance of the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins.

What is most meaningful according to Crump is the recognition and validation that the community values his work. With a film like 9/4/57, the story of a brave young African American (Dorothy Counts) student’s decision to attend the then all-white Harding High School, the rewards came in an even more meaningful way. “Peter Gorman [CMS Superintendent] presented Dorothy with an honorary diploma from Harding after a special screening of the film,” says Crump. “To see the socially redemptive value the film has is something special for me.” Indeed, Crump’s films are special for us all.

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This article was made possible by a grant from the Arts & Science Council.

Photos courtesy of Steve Crump. Top: Crump with legendary folk singer/banjo player Pete Seeger; bottom: Crump receives Regional Emmy award.

Arts editor: Jeff Jackson

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