George Stoney Memorial and Palo Alto Connection

You can tune in to the Memorial for Community Access TV and renown documentary producer, George Stoney, on Monday, August 6 at 3:00 PM (Pacific), at this webstream from Manhattan Neighborhood Network.

Here’s a story that I (Elliot) wrote about my friendship with George a few weeks before he died. It involves an active Palo Alto community member, Bernard Coley.

Since 1984, I’d see George Stoney every year at the Public Access TV – Community Media conferences, but was always too shy to initiate a conversation. He was known as the Father of Public Access Television having convinced the FCC to require public channels from cable operators and having secured foundation-funding to train the first generation of Access Facilitators in the early 70’s. His distinguished career already included work for the Farm Security Administration – producing radio documentaries during the Depression, decades of film documentaries that often portrayed people through re-enactments he directed, decades as a Professor of Film Studies at NYU, and a stint as director of Canada’s “Challenge for Change” – a progressive government program combining town meetings and videos.

In 1992, I moderated a panel with him and Hosea Williams, a leader from the Civil Rights Movement, but it was still a handshake relationship. Then one day in early 2003, I got a call from George in New York, asking me if I knew a “Bernard Coley.” He had received several voicemails from Bernard, but wasn’t sure why. Yes, I knew Bernard. He was active in our Palo Alto community volunteering for several organizations. I called Bernard on George’s behalf.

It turned out that Bernard was searching the Internet for any mentions of his relatives and came upon a link from the US Library of Congress. In 2002, the agency selected “All My Babies” as one of twenty-five films to preserve. “All My Babies” was produced by George Stoney in 1952. It was about an African-American midwife in rural Georgia – named Miss Mary Coley – Bernard’s grandmother. Bernard recalled hearing about a movie, but like most of his relatives – had never seen it. Miss Mary had been a poor sharecropper with eleven children of her own. She was also the most sought-after midwife in Dougherty County during the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. She walked miles to shacks and farms to deliver over 3,000 babies, sometimes fashioning a crib from a cardboard box.

Watching the film was a life-changing event for Bernard. Through the lens of George’s camera, Bernard rediscovered his personal history and a new pride for the work of his grandmother and her pivotal role in the community. Bernard’s discovery also marked the beginning of my long desired friendship with George Stoney. When the Smithsonian Museum presented an exhibit on Miss Mary and two other African-American rural midwives, George gave them a short video I produced about Bernard to include alongside his work.

Some of Bernard’s uncles and aunts had assumed that a Hollywood producer exploited their mother and made a bundle from the movie. In fact, George had sold some property to finish the film the way he wanted to make it. Bernard conducted a lengthy full court press on his family to disarm the family canard and gain acceptance for George. George accompanied Bernard to Albany, Georgia to meet the extended family. It was the first time he’d been back since Miss Mary’s funeral in 1966, where, in the tense days of the Civil Rights movement, George was the only white present.

In 2007, I went with George and four other friends of his to Albany to videotape Coley relatives and a celebration of Miss Mary’s life, organized by Bernard, his wife Denise,and George. About 100 attended the event – many of them were Miss Mary’s babies who shared stories they’d heard about her. We were put up in different homes of Coley relatives and friends. I stayed at Ms. Watkins modest home in a guestroom overflowing with bags of Christmas decorations.

George had a youthful enthusiasm about this sequel project. He had many fortuitous meetings in 21st century Albany. One day, for example, an African American man who saw him viewing a monument approached George. Not only was this man the first African American mayor of Albany, but an obstetrician as well. What a frame-change from being followed by Albany police 55 years earlier while shooting his film.

In 2009, George’s longtime partner, Betty, passed away. George was 93 and his own health began to wane. He gave up his third story walkup studio in Greenwich Village and moved into an NYU-owned building with an elevator. His eyes and ears weakened. His teeth were breaking. In 2010, I roomed with George at the annual community media conference. It was a privilege to care for him that weekend and walk arm in arm to each workshop. He confided that words were not coming to him when he addressed his students. My favorite part of the weekend was when we went to the mall to buy batteries for his hearing aids and discovered a See’s Candy Shop. We savored our chocolates while looking over a balcony at young families ice-skating on the mall’s rink.

In 2011 he turned over his last class at NYU to his talented protégé, David Bagnall. When I saw him last, he used a walker after so many years as an avid hiker on Appalachian trails as well as Manhattan streets. The work on the sequel has slowed to a crawl. He said how lucky he’d been to have a run of great health for 92 years, but now he was “doddering.”

In two weeks George will celebrate his 96th birthday at the annual party held at Betty’s old farmhouse. Guests will see that George is thinner than ever, almost diaphanous. And he’ll probably be quieter as he works to keep up with all the comments. But if his body is only a shell of what it was, it is still easy to see the pearl nestled inside it – translucent with stories and wisdom from North Carolina to North Ireland, from a remote Indian tribe in the Amazon to the townspeople of the Canadian prairie, from suffering farmers to cotton mill strikers during the Depression, from the nationally acclaimed folk singers – the Weavers, to the Civil Rights singers at Highlander Folk School, to the prisoners in Sing Sing performing Hamlet.

I hold so many images of George’s life that I coaxed from him these past nine years. Like hundreds of others he has touched and shaped, I carry them gently like a box of chocolates I will share with anyone who wants to savor some sweetness.

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