KALAMAZOO--A retired Western Michigan University professor's work contributed to a documentary film narrated by Emmy Award-winning actress Cicely Tyson that will air at 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5, on WGVU/WGVK TV, West Michigan's Public Broadcasting Service station.
Dr. Benjamin C. Wilson, professor emeritus of Africana studies, served as historical consultant on the film. Titled "Up From the Bottoms: The Search for the American Dream," it tells the story of the massive migration of African Americans from the rural south to the prosperous, industrial north during and after World War II.
The film features Tyson's voice guiding viewers through touching, thoughtful and often funny personal stories told by 15 residents of Muskegon, Mich. Wilson and civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory provide the national and historical perspective of the Great Migration, while musical clips showcase the artistry of Stevie Wonder and the rapper, Common.
Produced by Jim and Rod Schaub of Clear Vision Films, the documentary has won five awards, including the 2010 Paul Robeson Award. It has been shown around the world and is being presented and studied in schools across the country as part of black history and social studies curricula.
"When some think of a utopia, Muskegon doesn't come to mind," Wilson says. "But for many African Americans from the mid-South during the first half of the 20th century, that Michigan city seemed like a laborer's economic promised land of milk and honey."
During the late 1930s through the 1960s, factory jobs in the north were abundant while farming jobs in the south were disappearing. The African Americans who migrated north left behind the legacy of slavery and segregation and set out to find the American dream.
"Up From the Bottoms" is a West Michigan migration story but it also touches on the vast differences in culture between the north and south and delves into the racial tensions the new immigrants encountered as they improved their economic fortunes, eventually bought or built homes and raised their families.
About Ben Wilson
Wilson, a former director of WMU's Africana studies program, joined the faculty in 1975 and retired in 2006. He founded and for many years directed a popular music minifestival at the University that coincided with Black History Month.
His research interests have included African history, African American history before 1865, Michigan history, black Michigan history, black popular culture, the Underground Railroad, black migration history and black diaspora issues. He also is an expert on Idlewild, a famed resort community in West Michigan that was the premier vacation spot for African Americans from the 1920s to 1960s.
Wilson has served as a black history consultant or contributor on several print and broadcast projects, is the author or co-author of three books, and has received research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Michigan Council for the Arts.
He earned a bachelor's degree from Benedictine College and a master's and doctoral degree from Michigan State University.