Documentary series traces history of racial injustice, resistance in Twin Cities

A man in a gray collared shirt smiles at the camera.
Daniel Bergin is Executive Producer at Twin Cities Public Television and a filmmaker behind the documentary series "Jim Crow of the North."
Courtesy of Daniel Bergin

Twin Cities Public Television released a documentary called Jim Crow of the North in 2019. A new series by the same name explores more stories about resistance to racial discrimination in the Twin Cities region.

The series hinges on this question: why is Minneapolis the epicenter of a global racial reckoning?

MPR News Host Cathy Wurzer spoke with TPT Executive Producer and filmmaker Daniel Bergin about the series.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation. 

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Audio transcript

CATHY WURZER: The documentary Jim Crow of the North was released by Twin Cities Public Television back in 2019, but TPT just released a series by the same name with new stories about resistance to racial discrimination in the Twin Cities. The series is asking the question, why is Minneapolis the epicenter of a global racial reckoning?

Here's a clip from the new series Jim Crow of the North.

SPEAKER 1: Let's give it up for George one time.

SPEAKER 2: Minneapolis is the epicenter of a global racial reckoning. But why? Why here in the so-called free north? It's not a coincidence. It's a direct consequence of our history.

SPEAKER 3: The whole damn system is guilty as hell.

CATHY WURZER: And joining us to tell us more is TPT executive director and filmmaker Daniel Bergin. Hey, Daniel. How are you?

DANIEL BERGIN: I'm good, Cathy. Thanks for having me.

CATHY WURZER: Hey, the documentary premiered in February of 2019. I mean, that was a stand-alone documentary. It sounds like you're adding to it a little bit and expanding it, really, making it into a series. What's the thought behind that?

DANIEL BERGIN: Well, Jim Crow of the North, shortly after its release, really took on a really powerful role in community conversations about how we got to now, how history informs today, including some of the worst-in-the-nation disparities. And so all of this, Cathy, was 2019, before 2020. So after things happened in 2020, George Floyd's murder, the ongoing pandemic, it was clear that these issues in the film were ones that people still wanted to talk about and were acting on, too, as people were learning about the history of restrictive covenants and how that led to redlines and some of the disparities that we see today.

We thought we could continue to use that as a conversation piece.

CATHY WURZER: You held a number of community meetings over the past few years, using the film to prompt discussion. I'm betting that you heard a lot.

DANIEL BERGIN: Yeah. It was powerful. People really wanted to learn more. They wanted to share. There's something about this story at the heart of Jim Crow of the North, the documentary and the series, about these restrictive racist covenants that are buried in the deeds of homes across the country, and certainly throughout Minnesota, and so it's really personal for people when they find out that their home or their neighborhood has this-- is haunted by this piece of systemic racism.

And so people want to know more. They want to act. They want to learn about how African Americans and other people still persevered despite this embedded racism. So yeah, the conversations have been powerful. And we hope that continues with these new short documentaries.

CATHY WURZER: How is the response-- or is the response different among white folks versus BIPOC audiences?

DANIEL BERGIN: It's a great question. In some of the initial screenings, especially in Black space, Kirsten Delegard, of Mapping Prejudice, and I with African Americans, especially elders, there was a lot of patient nodding, like yes, we know this history. We lived it. We fought against it. But with white folks, there was a lot more aha moments and people realizing just how it wasn't de facto segregation in Minnesota. It was real.

It was just buried deeper than the "colored" and "white" signs of the deep south. So it's really been kind of a truth and reconciliation experience with Mapping Prejudice and Jim Crow of the North, and now Just Deeds and Free the Deeds and all the other movements.

CATHY WURZER: The stories that you're telling are definitely about discrimination and racism, right? But there's also a thread of resistance and standing up to power. And I'm wondering if you want to talk about that in terms of how that reflects the research too.

DANIEL BERGIN: Yeah, totally. I mean, from the onset, when restrictive covenants were starting to get placed into development of housing, the NAACP, activists, and allies immediately were pushing back and fighting against this, you know. And that went on for decades and decades. So resistance always has been there, but it was just-- it was a hard fight. But the personal stories, Cathy, I think are where you really see really compelling resistance.

In one of our films, we meet the Moores, a great family in south Minneapolis, and they tell their personal story of overcoming some of the formal and informal racism as they were trying to buy a house for their young, growing family in south Minneapolis. And really, they put a face on just the grace, the perseverance, and the human connection as they, ultimately, bonded with a couple of women who happened to be white, who fell in love with their toddler daughter and required-- demanded that the real estate agent sell to them.

So, spoiler, I gave away a really powerful ending of one of the stories. But it's to your question of how change happens. And it's structural, it's policy, but it's also interpersonal.

CATHY WURZER: I'm wondering, you went digital with this. And, as I say, the 2019 film was over the air. It was also online, clearly. But it sounds like you're going in a bit of a different direction with this digital series. Why is that?

DANIEL BERGIN: Well, you and I, Cathy, and our organizations and public media need to evolve and meet our audiences where they are. And there's a lot of power in some of the multimedia platforms that we can bring our content to. So it's been a really interesting experiment.

One thing we know is that in classrooms and in other settings, sometimes an hour-long documentary is a tough fit for viewing and discussion and so we've heard from educators and others that there is something really effective about shorter media to then follow along with conversation and action. So there's a couple of things informing that, but yeah, it's-- we're all streaming more, and we're streaming from different platforms, and so the Jim Crow of the North Stories are an experiment in seeing how we can find audiences on these different platforms and still have the impact that public TV and public media always should have.

CATHY WURZER: So what are some of the stories in the series that you want to pass along that we can look forward to?

DANIEL BERGIN: Yeah. Well, the series really began where a friend of mine, Diver Van Avery, a really great activist and artist here on the south side of Minneapolis, reached out about a project they were doing around restrictive covenants. They were aware. They had used and watched Jim Crow of the North and wanted to let me know that they were creating these really interesting artist-created lawn signs that would call out the restrictive covenant on a home that a homeowner could purchase, and that would be an awareness-raising process, and there might be a little fundraising for diverse and Black homeownership in the process, and community would be in conversation.

And I love art stories. I love history and people's stories and, really, local stories, and this was just a great reflection of this community in the Twin Cities. And so that was the first piece. And then, in that process, we met and learned more about Just Deeds, an amazing process led by Maria Cisneros in Golden Valley, where they were also helping people learn about the restrictive covenants and then expunge them or discharge them.

And they would help with that and in the process, have conversation and really reconcile with the history of communities like Golden Valley or Minneapolis and really try and help us build towards a better future. So Just Deeds is another crucial story. And in that, you meet someone like Oliver Lyle, who encountered really brutal, almost apartheid-like policing of the border between Golden Valley and Minneapolis. And his experience was one that we wanted to share as well.

Because these are housing segregation tactics, but they lead to other forms of interpersonal and systemic racism like problematic policing. So that's another story. And then all of this with the idea of how do we move forward as a community and how do we broaden that idea of home ownership and shrink wealth disparities and work towards a better community.

CATHY WURZER: Mm-hmm. Now, by the way, where can folks find the series?

DANIEL BERGIN: Where can't you? [CHUCKLES] I mean, it's--

CATHY WURZER: [LAUGHS]

DANIEL BERGIN: You can certainly find them on YouTube. And you can please go and subscribe to Twin Cities PBS's YouTube channel, and there you'll get updates on other projects, other content. But you can find the miniseries Jim Crow of the North Stories. But you can also find us streaming, for those of you who like to get your PBS content over the top, as they say, through an app like Roku. We're there.

The PBS app is a great way to access content when you want it. And eventually, who knows? Maybe these stories will find their way into a film as well, and maybe we'll see it in that old-school way. We'll watch it on the couch in real time. But yeah, TPT.org is the good place to go to get started.

CATHY WURZER: All right. Always a pleasure, my friend. Thank you so much.

DANIEL BERGIN: Thank you. Really appreciate it, Cathy.

CATHY WURZER: Daniel Bergin is the executive producer behind the film and the new series on Twin Cities Public Television called Jim Crow of the North. Daniel told you all the places you can find the series-- YouTube and the TPT website at TPT.org.

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment‘s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.