ST. LOUIS -- The late documentary filmmaker Henry Hampton spent a lifetime compiling the history of America's epic times -- the civil rights movement, the Great Depression, the life of Malcolm X, among others -- for delivery to television viewers.
Now Hampton's prodigious body of work, consisting of tens of thousands of films, audio tapes and musical recordings, manuscripts and photographs, is in the custody and care of his alma mater, Washington University, the institution that propelled a moody young man depressed by polio onto a path of eternal curiosity.
"That's where his intellectual flame was lit," his older sister, Veva Zimmerman, said in a telephone interview from Vermont. "Washington University taught him how to use his brain. I could see that happening."
Washington University Libraries was selected, over the Library of Congress and other world-class institutions, as the home and steward for Hampton's film archives.
Hampton, who died in 1998 at the age of 58, was a black St. Louis native, who, after graduating from Washington University in 1961, went on to become one of the world's most respected documentary filmmakers.
His 14-part series, "Eyes on the Prize," which ran in prime time on PBS stations in the 1980s after a decade of production and financial challenges, is considered the seminal documentary of the civil rights movement and one of the largest collections of civil rights media, said David Rowntree, special media collections archivist at Washington University.
'The crown jewel'
A childhood spent in a segregated St. Louis suburb, and a traumatic introduction to an integrated school set Hampton on his eventual path, his sister said. His early bout with polio, which he later said would teach him the value of incremental goals, along with his experience during the march from Selma, Ala., cemented it.
"It's the crown jewel," Rowntree said of the series that documents the movement from 1954 to 1965. "Anybody doing research cannot ignore it; in fact, it's one of the first they'd go to. It encompasses the entire movement."
Rowntree and his staff of one assistant and an occasional student helper are undertaking a mammoth task with the Hampton Collection. It will take years to complete.
They're organizing, cataloguing and preserving 2,000 dusty cartons of rusty film cans and other materials that filled three semi-truck loads when they were transported last spring and summer from storage in Boston. That's where Hampton founded his film company, Blackside Inc., in 1968. They will reformat the films for use by researchers, academics, students, nonprofits and filmmakers, and promote the collection for public use so it doesn't sit on shelves gathering cobwebs.
"I think he'd want them to continue to be used, respected and cared for," said Rowntree about the man who once stored the materials in his home garage. "Whether in Boston or St. Louis is not an issue, but to see the materials used, he'd be pleased."