New documentary uncovers the neglect felt by Black families following the Piatt Street Plane Crash
A new documentary explores the lingering pain from the 1965 Piatt Street Plane Crash.
It's been 58 years since a plane nose-dived into a northeast Wichita neighborhood killing 30 people. It's still considered the deadliest aircraft disaster in Kansas. A new documentary unearthing the trauma brought on by the Piatt Street plane crash will debut in May. For this edition of In The Mix, Carla Eckels set down with filmmaker and Wichita State Professor Kevin Harrison to learn more about the film, The Silent Cries of the Unheard Ghetto Children.
KEVIN HARRISON: The way that I kind of framed the question is that I really wanted to see how people were treated afterwards, and I wanted to see kind of what type of support was put in place for [those] individuals. ... So obviously the flames and the fire and the crash and the earthquake and the loss of lives were traumatic, and you can't even put a measurement on how traumatic those incidents were, but the residential redlining that was taking place, the segregation in the community at that time, the settlements that most people felt were a joke.
CARLA ECKELS: What do you mean by a joke?
Just the amounts that they received, you know? I talked to one particular lady and her family [who] was reported as receiving one amount, which wasn't a great amount. And she said that ... her exact words, that it was a lie. ... She wouldn't share what they received, but she said it wasn't even that amount that was reported.
So, you have a loss of family and then, economically you still struggle.
Yes. There were some people that were at a total loss. There were some payments that were made out to the gas company, the electric company — who have [an] infrastructure in place, and some of their equipment was damaged. Those companies were paid more than most of the families who lost everything, including the lives of loved ones.
As you were going through the process of filming, how did the people respond?
There were people that I reached out to that didn't want to be interviewed. And then there was one lady that I spoke with, she said, "You can put my picture on the screen and you can quote me." But she said, "I just really don't want to be interviewed on the camera. It'll feel like reliving it all over again." I talked to another gentleman who said that there's not a day in his life that doesn't go by that he's not traumatized by it, and he says, "I've never been diagnosed with PTSD, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt, I have it." Another lady, kind of along those same lines of the PTSD conversation said, after it was over and done, they never sent [anybody] to talk to us to see if we were okay. No psychologists, no doctors, nothing. Just..."Okay, well...figure it out."
And a lot of the conversations that I have had, there's still some resentment, there's still some disappointment with how that situation was handled.
The plane crash happened nearly 60 years ago. Why tell this story now?
I mean, why, why stop telling it? I think we should tell it 30 years from now, another 50 years from now. History informs everything that we currently go through and so, there's some history, there are some historical things from that incident that are probably informing some things that happen now, trauma being one of them. There is a lot of trauma in Wichita's Black community, not solely because of this plane crash, but I definitely think this plane crash has contributed to it. Some of the other elements that we talk about in the film, I think there are still some byproducts of trauma that [are] associated ... with those things as well.
You know, Wichita was one of the most segregated cities in America in 1965. A lot of people don't realize that, but we were just as good at segregation as Birmingham, Alabama in 1965 and so that doesn't come without a cost that doesn't come without pain and suffering.
And that doesn't come without a wealth gap in 2023, that is the byproduct of some things that took place long before 1965 that created the segregated neighborhoods to begin with. A highway that goes right through the neighborhood — that doesn't come without air pollution. An oil refinery that's right there in the neighborhood, a stockyard and a meat packing facility that are right there in the most undesirable neighborhoods in Wichita.
That those things don't come without byproducts — polluted and contaminated water that we say is from the railroad and probably so. But, to my understanding, when an airplane crashes and there are, 30+ thousand gallons of jet fuel, I can't imagine that not contaminating the water. [To my knowledge] there has never been any tests done on the soil or any tests to see if that had anything to do with contaminating the water as well. So, I just think, we talk about it now because there are still things that we suffer because of incidents that happened. Not just this, but period incidents that happened a long time ago. The suffering doesn't just end a long time ago. It continues into contemporary settings.
How has your documentary changed you?
How has it changed me? Hmm. That's a good question. I don't know if it's really changed me so much because I was always pretty familiar with the story. I think there are facets of it that have angered me. I guess the overarching questions that I'm kind of trying to get at is what does it mean to be more human? And what does it feel like when humanity is compromised because of whatever policy and politics and whatever things attack people's humanity? And so, there are several incidents of attacks on humanity, and I'm not talking about the plane crash itself. I don't think there was a conspiracy to kill Black people, although that is one of the beliefs. I don't think that was the case, but I think some of the ways that it was handled were definitely an issue. Even the plane being in the air, you know, just days before the plane crashed, the captain had reported that there were several things wrong with this airplane. This plane shouldn't go in the air. And I believe it was eight days later, this same pilot was sent on a routine to fly this plane. And so, yeah, certain parts of it anger me.
I mentioned your documentary in a recent meeting, and some of the young people were unaware that the crash even took place in 1965. Why is it important for them to watch the documentary?
There's a lot of history in the space that surrounds us that we just don't know of. We need to really empower our community, especially the youth, by letting them know the stories of people that have come out of our community so that they can know what they're capable of ... [like] Lynette Woodard (WNBA, Harlem Globetrotters, Olympian)... like Donald Hollowell ... who was Dr. Martin Luther King's attorney, who released Dr. King from Reedsville Penitentiary, in Georgia. He also helped to desegregate the University of Georgia. We have so many stories like that from people right here in our backyard. We need to celebrate that. And so this is a story of trauma rather than a celebratory story but at the same time, there is empowerment in the story and there's empowerment in healing from the trauma. Like I said, from the interviews that I've had, the trauma still resides in the area.
Filmmaker Kevin Harrison is the assistant teaching professor and diversity equity inclusion director for the Wichita State University Cohen Honors College.