BELOIT — Filmmaker Joanne Williams called me out of the blue in 2016 as she was beginning work on her documentary, “The Exchange in White America: Kaukauna and King 50 Years Later”
She had gone on to a career as a successful TV host and producer, but 50 years earlier as a student at Milwaukee’s Rufus King High School, she remembers classmates putting on a groundbreaking and controversial play.
That memory was the inspiration for her documentary of the exchange in 1966 between white students from my hometown of Kaukauna and Black students from King that will screen this week at the Beloit International Film Festival. (See times below)
In that call several years ago, Williams was looking for my sister Linda who was in the play and one of the exchange students, along with Phyllis Lawhorn of Milwaukee who stayed at our home during the performances at Kaukauna High School.
Kaukauna & King Trailer from Don Hertz on Vimeo.
But what Williams didn’t know at the time was that my father was a passionate amateur photographer and filmmaker in his own right and had documented our family’s participation in the exchange in both still photos and home movies.
I remembered watching the movies as a kid, and the box of dusty Super 8 movies eventually ended up in my attic in Janesville to be rediscovered all these years later.
Part of his documentation are now included in the film.
In 1966, during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Thomas Schaffer an English teacher at Kaukauna High School, looking to perform the play “In White America” with KHS drama students, arranged a 13-student exchange between Kaukauna High School and Rufus King High School in Milwaukee.
The students lived in each other’s homes and presented the controversial play in each community.
In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of those historic performances, Williams, began producing a documentary on the exchange.
Williams, then the host of “Black Nouveau” on Milwaukee Public Television, set out to find all the students and the people who helped in the exchange, to see what impact it had on them as high school students and who they have become 50 years later and look at their perspectives on race relations in America.
“I have covered news in Southeast Wisconsin for more than 40 years on WTMJ-TV and WITI-FOX6. During those years, this story has always been in the back of my mind and in the back of my files,” Williams said.
“Something told me, 50 years ago when I was a student at Rufus King High School, to hang onto an edition of the ‘King’s Page,’ the student newspaper,” she said. “Maybe I was a journalist even then, but I was definitely interested in history so the paper stayed tucked away in my box marked ‘high school stuff.’”
The documentary also features the story of the revival of the play 50 years later by a new generation of high school students in the same schools and communities.
In the film, Schaffer’s daughter, Paula Vandehey, speaks about her father’s experiences putting on the play.
“I think it impacted many lives and hopefully, through this documentary, it will continue to change lives.”
BIFF is a ten-day tribute to the power of film and the excitement of independent film from around the world. Local residents and visitors from across the nation fill venues, ranging in size from 40 to 400 seats for more than 100 films, and to meet scores of filmmakers who come from throughout the U.S. and as far away as Europe, Asia and Latin America.
“The Exchange in White America: Kaukauna and King 50 Years Later” will screen:
Sat Feb 25, 2023 – 5:00 pm | Downtown Beloit Association
Fri Mar 3, 2023 – 7:30 pm | Downtown Beloit Association
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