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“Sifting and Winnowing and Film Burning”: The Film UW Restricted

April 9, 2021

Listen to the recording of the event here.

By: Kacie Lucchini Butcher – Public History Project Director

In April of 1962, a box of film reels made its way to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Archives accompanied by a letter that read

“I send you here with ten cans of film and magnetic tape. These are the hidden camera scenes of film on housing discrimination in a medium-sized northern city. They are packing in a single, sealed box. These materials are not to be used or released except on the specific authorization of the University administration.”[1]

The Bureau of Audio-Visual Instruction’s film reel storage room. Courtesy of the UW Archives.

Sealed and secreted in the UW Archives, the contents of the film were not seen until 2018 when Cat Phan, Digital and Media Archivist at the UW Archives began to ask why the film was still restricted and if it could now be released. Phan said, “There are good reasons why some materials may be restricted in archives – legal, ethical, moral. In general, though, we try to make our collections as widely accessible as possible. When I learned more about the story of this film, I started to interrogate the reasons why it was ‘put under seal in the University Archives’ and questioned whether or not those reasons were valid.” With the help of the Office of Legal Affairs, Phan was able to get the restriction lifted. Shortly after, with the assistance of PBS Wisconsin, the film was digitized and made viewable for the first time in 56 years. On April 18th, PBS Wisconsin, the UW-Madison Public History Project, and the UW Archives will host an event to show the film footage to the public for the first time ever.

What’s all the fuss about?

The film was originally produced in 1962 by the Bureau of Audio-Visual Instruction of the UW Extension Division. The concept, brought forward by famed Civil Rights leader and then President of the Wisconsin NAACP Lloyd Barbee, was simple. Barbee and his team would use undercover filming techniques to document housing discrimination in Madison. Barbee pursued funding for the film, including requesting funding from the Division Fund controlled by the Board of Regents, which was approved and granted. They also received funding from B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League NYC, the Bureau of Audio-Visual Instruction, and an anonymous donor.

With funding in hand and approval from the Board of Regents, Barbee and Stuart Hanisch, then a professor in the Bureau, began filming. Between September and December of 1961, they recorded 13 encounters across the city of Madison. Using undercover filming techniques and hidden microphones, Barbee and Hanisch were able to capture the reality of housing discrimination in the city, where white residents regularly denied housing to Black residents based solely on their race. While some landlords and realtors claimed they had already found occupants, others were more forthright – “I’m sorry but I can’t let you have it – – not in this neighborhood… I don’t want to have trouble with my neighbors.”

A still image from Barbee and Hanisch’s 1962 film that was banned by UW. Courtesy of the UW Archives.

During a preliminary viewing of the film by university administrators, concerns were immediately raised that the use of undercover footage had violated the right to privacy of the individuals who were filmed. In an effort to “not compound this error” university administrators decreed that the film’s undercover footage could not be released, but instead offered to film reenactments using actors. Barbee and Hanisch vehemently rejected this proposal saying that “failure to use the candid incidents of discrimination would corrupt the entire original concept of the completed film.”[2] Barbee and Hanisch instead offered to cover the faces of those filmed and building numbers pictured. Administrators rejected this proposal, firm that the film should be used to inform reenactments and then be “disposed of.”

The use of the term “disposed of” created widespread confusion in the community. The wording implied that the university had plans to film the reenactments and then burn the original film reels. Barbee and the NAACP immediately organized pickets at multiple Extension sites including on the UW-Madison campus and in Kenosha, Racine, and Milwaukee. Photos of the protests show signs emblazoned with the phrases – “Sifting and Winnowing and Film Burning,” “UW Protects Bigots,” and “Fire Film Burners.”[3] Dodge County Judge and alumna, Joseph Schultz, was so upset by the media coverage that he wrote a letter to then-President Conrad Elvehjem stating “The burning of honest films, like the burning of honest books, is not in the Wisconsin tradition.”[4]

Picketers protesting the ban of the film. Newspaper Clipping Courtesy of UW Archives.

After repeated attempts to find a compromise and incensed by the actions of administrators, Stuart Hanisch resigned from UW citing the administrators’ “successive acts of bad faith.” He continued

“I do not in all honesty feel that I can participate in the University’s perfidy. I have no alternative that can honor the numerous parties who had given so willingly their financial support and time to bring about the realization of this film. I have no alternative that honors my own self-respect, except to tender my resignation of my current appointment to the faculty.”[5]

In his place, the university assigned Jackson Tiffany to recreate the film using actors and reenactments. The film, titled “To Find A Home,” was released in the fall of 1963 and went on to become one of the distinguished films of Tiffany’s career. Lloyd Barbee was not involved in its creation. Barbee and Hanisch’s original undercover footage was locked away in the UW Archives until Cat Phan pushed for its release.

Jack Tiffany filming. Courtesy of UW Archives

Now you have the opportunity to see the original film as Barbee and Hanisch intended. On April 18th PBS Wisconsin, the UW-Madison Public History Project, and the UW Archives will host an event with Lloyd Barbee’s daughter, Daphne Barbee-Wooten, and a panel of local Madison community activists, historians, and organizers where they will show the undercover footage to the public for the first time ever and continue a conversation about housing discrimination in Madison.

For more information and to register for the event, please visit https://pbswisconsin.org/events/

[1] Letter from Dean L.H. Adolfson to J.E. Boell of University Archives re restriction of housing film, April 5, 1962, Chancellor’s Miscellaneous files, General Subject Files – Discrimination-Enrollment, Series 4/0/3, Box 26, Bias Film 1961-1962 Folder, UW Archives.

[2] Newspaper Clipping, “Differing views on UW film hassle aired,” Wisconsin State Journal, March 22, 1962. Chancellor’s Miscellaneous files, General Subject Files – Discrimination-Enrollment, Series 4/0/3, Box 26, Bias Film (Discrimination) Folder, UW Archives.

[3] Newspaper Clipping, “Film Picketing to Spread,” Wisconsin State Journal, March 21, 1962. Chancellor’s Miscellaneous files, General Subject Files – Discrimination-Enrollment, Series 4/0/3, Box 26, Bias Film (Discrimination) Folder, UW Archives.

[4] Letter from Joseph Schultz to Conrad Elvehejm re: housing film, March 19, 1962, Chancellor’s Miscellaneous files, General Subject Files – Discrimination-Enrollment, Series 4/0/3, Box 26, Bias Film 1961-1962 Folder, UW Archives.

[5] Newspaper Clipping, “Quits U.W.; Claims Bias Film Banned,” Capital Times, March 19, 1962. Chancellor’s Miscellaneous files, General Subject Files – Discrimination-Enrollment, Series 4/0/3, Box 26, Bias Film (Discrimination) Folder, University of Wisconsin Archives, Madison, Wisconsin.