Chester Housing Authority

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The Spirit: Documentary Honors Chester Icon

To mark the 100th anniversary of the Great Migration of six million African-Americans from the South, Philadelphia's Scribe Video Center, last week, presented nine short documentaries about urban life at a special event held at the International House, on the University of Pennsylvania campus.  

One of those documentaries told the little-known story of Ruth L. Bennett.Bennett was a Chester native who devoted her life to helping women and children migrating north to escape Southern racism and discrimination from an 1880-era house, which from its inception, served as a safe haven. The film, titled "Finding Home," was produced by Scribe Video, in collaboration with the Chester Housing Authority (CHA), members of the Ruth L. Bennett House and citizens of Chester.

Today, CHA's largest housing development is named for Bennett."I got a call last September from Scribe Video. They were doing a video… and Ruth Bennett was a historical figure they were interested in," said Steven A. Fischer, CHA executive director. "There are housing complexes all over named for great people who have nothing to do with housing, like William Penn, but I don't think William Penn was known for taking people into his home.

Ruth L. Bennett was."Fischer said he was asked to bring together people who were also knowledgeable about Bennett. He noted that the Ruth L. Bennett Homes is the most expansive public housing development in Chester, with over 260 units. He said Bennett's life in particular is extremely under-documented."If you look at the time where she helped people, 1916 and on, what we know as public housing today didn't exist. She took women and children into her home who were in distress."Emerson Hughes, a Chester resident and a member of the film's production team, said working on the project made him like a part of history.

"My family lived in Bennett Homes. I lived in Bennett Homes, being raised by my grandmother. I got involved through Steve Fischer and decided to be a part of it," he said. "I wanted to be a part of history, something great in the City of Chester."Deborah Montgomery, another local resident, was also asked to participate in production of the documentary.

"It meant so much to me to be a part of this. Many people who live in Chester don't know anything about Ruth Bennett or the impact she had in the lives of so many people."Fischer added that many who worked as members of the production team learned technical aspects of video production. In the process they developed video production skills they could take with them.Scribe Video Center was founded in 1982 as a place where emerging and experienced media artists could gain access to the tools and knowledge of video making and work together in a supportive environment.Louis Massiah, Scribe executive director, said documenting the history of the Great Migration is essential."This is a project we began in 2002.

So far, we've worked collaboratively with 79 community groups in Philadelphia and Chester producing short documentaries about places that, in some ways, define the communities and hold memory," he said.According to Massiah, the community groups were matched with humanities scholars and filmmakers."We have a special focus on the Great Migration this year," he said. "May of 2016 is the centenary of the first Great Migration.

The Pennsylvania Railroad was looking for laborers and sent trains south for African-Americans to come north and work in Philadelphia. These were very hard jobs that had a high mortality rate. Between 1900 and 1930 the Black population in Philadelphia quadrupled. When we use the term 'urban', it's synonymous with African-Americans and comes from that period in history. If we don't tell our stories, no one else will."