Living with history

"History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future." — Robert Penn Warren

Here at Milestone, we are constantly grappling with history. Whenever we choose to restore a film, we try to research and explore every aspect of the filmmaker's time and work. We study the participants' biographies, the social mores and political landscape of the time and even the day-to-day minutia of the filmmaking process. It is exhilarating and exhausting and essential. 

When it all comes together, the end result is that a film—a sliver of the past—is restored and re-introduced to the public. And amazingly, that small act can have a powerful impact—on individuals and on current political debates. When we released Kent Mackenzie's great documentary THE EXILES, the film gave one of the participants the chance to tell her children and grandchildren about her own bittersweet experience of being a young Native American woman living in 1960s Los Angeles. Our release of WINTER SOLDIER introduced Iraqi war veterans struggling with PTSD to the Vietnam vets who confronted similar demons thirty years before. And inspired and empowered by the example of these men, Iraq Veterans Against the War went on to hold their own "Winter Soldier" antiwar hearings. 

But this is not a blog about films. This blog is about a church—a very special and historical church.


The Centennial AME Zion Church is located in the back of the K-Mart in our neighboring town of Closter, NJ. You could drive by it a thousand times and never stop to wonder what it is and how it got there—I know, because I have. But thanks to a few civic-minded residents, the church was recently proposed for landmark status by the town's Historical Preservation Commission. 

And the Church has an amazing history. The Centennial AME Zion Church was founded in 1894 by the descendants of freed slaves and is still in operation today. The church's founders had ties to the community of Skunk Hollow, an all-black community of freed slaves that began in 1806. And Bishop Alexander Walters, who went on become a leader of the NAACP, officiated at the church's dedication in 1896.

On March 7, the Closter Planning Board met and voted against historic designation of the church. They were, it seems, worried about the effect of the church's landmark status on the redevelopment of the K-Mart strip mall.

This was when Dennis and I first heard about the church's history, the preservation drive and the "no" vote from a friend on the plucky Historic Preservation Commission. 

A million years ago (or so it feels), I attended graduate school in history, where I mostly learned how to be a gadfly. So I took my education (at Yale, in film and in life), and got busy. First, I launched a petition drive on the website Whenever anyone signs the petition online (at, the mayor and six council members of Closter receive an email. As of today, March 23, they have received more than 600. [So, please take a minute and sign it too. Thanks!]

I also emailed a friend and fellow survivor of Yale, now living abroad. She joined the cause with enthusiasm and wrote a series of blogs on the church for the She and I also both posted notices on an African-American studies listserve. 
Did this all have an effect? Boy oh boy. On March 14, after the mayor and council had been flooded with emails, the council voted unanimously to move the proposal to the next step. And the March 14 meeting was wonderful. Reverend Richard Collins vigorously voiced the Centennial AME Zion Church's support for landmark status. Dr. Arnold Brown, a local African-American scholar, spoke about the importance of recognizing the history of this church, noting that his own ancestors had lived in Skunk Hollow and were among the first members of the church. William Cahill, former borough historian and former chairman of the Closter Historic Preservation Commission, stated that when we think of history in this area, we often think of the Dutch sandstone houses, but we forget that these buildings were actually built by African slaves. He movingly pleaded with the council to preserve this church. I spoke too, and presented copies of the petition to all the council members. Maggie Harrer, director of the Waterworks Conservancy and notable historian from the nearby town of Oradell, spoke about the history of the church and the importance of preserving it.
And the council's go-ahead is great, but it does not mean that the property is currently designated historic, nor does it insure that it someday will be. So, we are continuing. At the meeting, several council members remarked on the flood of emails they are getting, so we see that we have their attention, and we want to encourage them to remain steadfast. 
I also decided to start a Facebook page for the cause and realized that I needed to see and photograph the church in action—which meant visiting at the end of a Sunday service. That was a great experience for me. It is one thing to see a nice little white building, but it is something else again to witness how much it means to the congregation that calls it home. When I was speaking with Jerald Furman, the usher at the church, he told me that he has been attending it since he was five. It turns out that we both graduated from the same high school—he's a couple of years older than I am (and I'm in my mid-50s), so you can do the math. Also, our hometown was not around the corner, so even as a young kid he was making the trek to attend the Centennial AME Zion Church. That said a lot to me. I hope my photos of capture a little of all that: (