"Civil Warriors" Uncovers African American History

Historic Ithaca and The History Center in Tompkins County, (together under the Ithaca Heritage banner), along with the Southside Community Center and PhotoSynthesis Productions, have joined forces to co-host a special screening of feature film Civil Warriors. The screening is a part of local Black History Month and Ithaca Loves Teachers - Winter Recess events being held in the area. The main screening event is at the Southside Community Center (305 S. Plain Street, Ithaca), on February 24th, from 6:00-8:00 p.m., with a $5 suggested donation to benefit Southside’s community programs. There will be light refreshments served and a talkback after the screening with directors Deborah C. Hoard and Che Broadnax. GreenStar Co-op and Wegmans are sponsoring the event.

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The theme for Black History Month this year is “African Americans in Times of War,” which provides especially auspicious timing for a screening of Civil Warriors, from Ithaca-based film company PhotoSynthesis Productions. Set during the American Civil War, Civil Warriors depicts the lives of two black families from Ithaca, whose men enlist to serve in the war effort against the Confederacy and to take up arms in defense of their own liberty.

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The United States Colored Troops (USCT) was the first mobilization and recognition of black soldiers as an organized unit in the Union Army. They were empowered to use deadly force and fight in battle, as opposed to serving as laborers and cooks, which up to that point had been the ceiling for black recruits in the war effort.

Civil Warriors presents the experiences, thoughts, and reflections of the characters bound up in this war. It meditates on the implications of arming black men during the time of chattel slavery, treating them as equals under the law, and what the war means to them personally and to their families. The film depicts one of the first major conflicts in which African Americans took part as agents of their own liberation, rather than as the objects over which to be fought.


The military service aspect is only one of the several ways Civil Warriors carries significance for black history, for Ithaca and Tompkins County, and the nation as a whole. Although the story told in Civil Warriors has national significance, it is firmly rooted in local history.

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Civil Warriors is a story about black agency and self-determination, and Ithaca is its setting. It draws much of its power as a series of spoken-word monologues filmed at historically significant locations around Ithaca. Indeed, one of the filming locations is the St. James AME Zion Church, a historical conduit for black political organizing and one of the settings in which the story takes place. Add to that Ithaca’s role as a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the significance of the setting is magnified. As noted above, Civil Warriors will be showing at the Southside Community Center, a vital community institution in Ithaca’s historically black Southside neighborhood down the street from St. James AME Zion.

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In further service to the local history theme, the production team and much of the cast are Ithacans, and much of the research for the film was conducted locally, including at The History Center in Tompkins County and Historic Ithaca (as well as at the National Archives!). The screenplay itself was adapted from a play by local playwright and Tompkins County Historian Carol Kammen. Local musicians performed the score, including the Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers, a community singing outfit dedicated to preserving Negro spirituals and African American sacred music. Dorothy Cotton was part of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle and served as education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), one of the primary actors in the civil rights movement of the 1960s (she now calls Ithaca home, to our great benefit!).

Civil Warriors is a truly local film, which places it firmly within the Ithaca filmmaking tradition established in the early twentieth century, before the industry moved out West. Given Ithaca’s history as the birthplace of moviemaking, it’s only appropriate that Civil Warriors was created and composed here, using local talent by a film company that still calls Ithaca home, and whose mission includes a focus on social justice.


The making of Civil Warriors relied on scholarship, research, and analysis to get the details right, and the information readily available didn’t always tell the whole story. This particular problem is increasingly common in American classrooms in which the Civil War is taught. Students are often fed sanitized narratives about the human costs of slavery, and revisionist textbooks are starting to appear with outright omissions of fact with regard to the scale and scope of this barbarous practice. It’s not uncommon to find schoolkids who believe the Civil War fixed racism completely, and who are unable to make connections between the events of the past (e.g. the Thirteenth Amendment) with the circumstances of today (e.g. the prison-industrial complex).


Civil Warriors boasts a companion educational curriculum for 11th grade classrooms, co-written by Lehman Alternative Community School Social Studies teacher Bronwen Exter and Ithaca College Director of Programs and Outreach, as well as Civil Warriors narrator, Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell. The curriculum addresses the need to teach students how to assess the quality of source material, to draw lessons from historical events, and to make informed observations about how the past informs the present. The goal is to produce learners who are able to take up the work of documenting stories and history from their own communities, and who are able to participate in civil society with clear, informed eyes.

We made Civil Warriors for many reasons, but our biggest hope is that it can help make a difference in how educators and students approach the study of history, the analysis of contemporary society, and the task of telling their own stories.

In the words of Civil Warriors narrator Bradwell: “History is not just what we choose to retell. History is also what we choose to recover."

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This post was written by Ken C. Hill, Community Manager/Outreach Coordinator at PhotoSynthesis Productions, writing on behalf of the PSP/Civil Warriors team.

Ithaca is ICY—Winter Carnivals in Tompkins County

Isaac Sobers' horse and cutter, Verne Morton Collection, The History Center in Tompkins County

Isaac Sobers' horse and cutter, Verne Morton Collection, The History Center in Tompkins County

Tompkins County’s 2017 cold season has started off with a whimper, so it’s hard to believe that the first winter carnivals are upon us, with both Trumansburg (December 2) and Ithaca (Ithaca's Ice Festival is December 7-9) celebrating theirs in early December. Winter carnivals are long-standing area traditions that celebrate the activities that come with plunging temperatures—ice skating and hockey on frozen ponds and sometimes even Cayuga Lake, sledding down great hills of snow, making snow forts and even ice sculptures, and of course enjoying seasonal comfort foods.

“Winter festivals can be a particularly joyous opportunity for communities to come together and forget about their to-do lists,” notes folklorist Hannah Davis, the upstate regional representative for the New York Folklore Society. In winters past, carnivals would have been a welcome break from agricultural chores, including carving blocks of ice for food preservation. Millie Sherwood grew up on her family’s farm in Freeville. She recalled her wonderment about ice carved in winter surviving through the summer:

“The ice for the refrigeration before electric refrigerators . . . came from blocks cut during the winter from the pond on the farm and nestled away under layers of sawdust in the icehouse until called for in the summer months. To this day I cannot quite fathom how ice can last for months encased in nothing more exotic than sawdust, but there it was in August, to be hoisted out and cut into the right size for the icebox, then swung by the large ice tongs into a little red wagon to be trundled home and put to good use. Of course there was always a bit chipped off for us to munch on along the way.”

Though ice carving had its practical uses, it has also been a festive feature of winter carnivals. The long-standing and vaunted Montreal Winter Carnival has inspired a number of regional imitators. The January 1884 carnival, for example, consisted of “ten thousand blocks of ice . . . used in the construction of the ice palaces,” reported the Ithaca Daily Journal.

Such winter festivals have roots in both native and immigrant traditions. “Some wintertime events, like Christkindlmarkts and similarly styled craft sales, are easy to attach to the traditions of European immigrant groups,” explains folklorist Davis. “But every community has seasonal celebrations. The Haudenosaunee, for example, gather to play snow snake, a throwing game, in the winter months.”

Read on for some noted winter carnivals that have marked the winters of seasons past in Tompkins County.

Ad for Junior Week Winter Carnival, Cornell Daily Sun, February 6, 1905

Cornell’s Winter Carnival

From the early 1900s through the 1940s, Cornell hosted an active Winter Carnival on Beebe Lake during Junior Week. It involved ice skating and tobogganing and included ice hockey and ice skating exhibitions.

Ithaca Journal, February 4, 1965

Ithaca Journal, February 4, 1965

Ithaca’s Winter Weekend

Beebe Lake skaters (above) prepare for Ithaca’s first Winter Weekend in February 1965. The festival included a roster of active winter activities, including ice skating races, a snow and ice sculpture competition, hockey games, and a figure skating exhibition.

Ithaca Journal, February 2, 1987

Ithaca Journal, February 2, 1987

The State Park’s Winterfest

The Finger Lakes State Park sponsored an annual Winterfest in the late 1970s to 1980s at Robert H. Treman State Park. Activities included cross-country ski lessons, ice sculptures, and sleigh rides.

Ithaca Journal, January 19, 1984

Ithaca Journal, January 19, 1984

Winterfest in Trumansburg

Trumansburg’s WinterFest has been staged for 22 years. On the town’s Main Street visitors enjoy food, music, and shopping. Past festivals have offered sleigh rides, a tree-lighting ceremony, and a visit from Santa.

Groton Winterfest

The Groton Winterfest first took place in 2002 and included carnival fare and kids crafts.

Ithaca’s Light in Winter

Though defunct, this mid-winter festival merged art, music, and science to shine a light on the season. It began in 2004 and even included an ice-climbing exhibition on a cliff near Vann Natta’s Dam on Six Mile Creek that year.

Share your photos of winter carnivals past to include in the winter carnival gallery. Email to pat@historicithaca.org or post on Facebook @IthacaHeritage with the hashtag #WinterCarnivals.