Hertford County Women’s Project

By; Caroline Stephenson
Como, NC
May 26th, 2016

The Hertford County Women’s Project is a documentary media series about women in rural, impoverished Northeastern North Carolina. This area of NC is often referred to as the Lost Colony. Not only because the first English settlers vanished here, but because women here have been left out of the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Movement. There has been little to no progress in women’s empowerment here in decades, if not centuries. There are currently no women serving as County Commissioners, one woman serving as a State Senator, and no female representation in Washington.

In ten episodes, the stories of numerous women of various ages will be featured: their realities, their struggles, their accomplishments and their triumphs. Is it possible in the 21st Century to create a Women’s Movement here after women have been disenfranchised for so long? How will women in Hertford County react to this? Will they see they see the ultimate benefit for themselves, their children, and future generations? What are the pathways to creating better outcomes for women and children here? According to ncjustice.org, the 2014 childhood poverty rate in Hertford County is 35%.

I am a Hertford County, NC native and have been a filmmaker for the past 25 years. My earliest B&W silent images were shot on a 16mm Bolex right here in the county. Even though I grew up in a rural area, I dreamed of working on TV shows and movies. That dream became a reality after I graduated from film school in Chicago and moved to Los Angeles.

My work as a DGA Assistant Director has taken me all over the world. I’m very thankful for the career that I’ve had because I’ve worked with many outstanding, creative people and helped share their storytelling vision with the world. My personal storytelling vision, however, has always been rooted in Hertford County. I have shot thousands of feet of film here over the years, for myself really, of various local subjects, trying to document and preserve my beloved rural home.

In 1992, I interviewed several African American women who worked at a Perdue chicken processing facility in a neighboring county. They spoke of the physically demanding nature of the work and how themselves and others were injured on the job. Perdue often dismissed the women after they were injured, knowing that in this economically challenged area, there were plenty of others desperate for a job of any sort to take their place. I cut together a short version of this project called Lost Colony, showed it to some friends, and went on about my career as an AD.

In 2009, I ran across a study by Duke University about the same chicken processing facility in Northeastern NC. Almost twenty years after I shot Lost Colony, the story of the women pretty much remained the same. The researchers had studied the Perdue Farms chicken plant in Lewiston, N.C., whose approximately 2,500 workers process more than 400,000 chickens a day. They state: “It is located in an economically depressed area where there are few opportunities for employment. In the current study of 291 women, almost all of who were African-American, the researchers found high rates of pain and disorders in their wrists, shoulders and forearms. The women reported that their upper extremity problems were often dismissed as being the result of obesity or childcare responsibilities or mental health problems. However, while the levels of obesity and depression are of concern to us, our analysis found that these factors do not explain the high incidence of musculoskeletal problems separate from their work exposures and physical pathology. Currently, no federal health and safety agencies regulate line speeds of poultry plants. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets maximal line speeds to ensure food safety, without regard for worker safety. Since the USDA began setting line speeds in 1968, the pace has increased from less than 20 birds a minute to the current maximum of 91 birds a minute.”

After reading this study, I realized exactly how slow things are to change, especially for women in the rural South. Growing up in Hertford County, I was trained early to learn my place, and stay in my place if I wanted to navigate successfully into gentile womanhood. Not surprisingly, I left the county for college when I was 17.

I dusted off my original 1992 footage of Lost Colony, re-edited it and re- interviewed some of the original subjects of the film. The 2009 version of Lost Colony (https://vimeo.com/31754843) was shown locally and also in other film festivals in NC. In 2010, I moved back to our family farm in Hertford County with my children. Since then, and in between AD gigs, I have self-produced two other films about local subject matter:

  • 2012, Children Go Where I Send You, about Rosenwald Schools in the county, https://vimeo.com/86211112
  • 2013, Conjure, about a local African American root doctor, https://vimeo.com/89777907

It is time to give a voice to rural women, who have been invisible and overlooked for so long. It is time for them to show others how beautiful and resilient they really are. The Hertford County Women’s Project will not only act as a vehicle to share their stories with the world but also a provide them access to continuing education, political and economic empowerment, and progressive health and wellness services.