‘The Hillsboro Story’: Weaving a web of memories

In a new book, performance artist Susan Banyas integrates multiple voices and viewpoints, revisiting a 1950s school desegregation battle in her Ohio hometown.

“Two months after Brown v. Board of Education legally ended school segregation…my sleepy segregated little hometown, Hillsboro, Ohio, the county seat of Highland County, was jolted awake by a fire at the colored school; and History and Memory came marching into town like the Fourth of July Parade the day before.” — The opening passage of The Hillsboro Story, a new book by Susan Banyas.

“In the wee small hours of July 5, 1954, I popped wide awake and looked at the clock. Two o’clock. I quietly dressed and tiptoed downstairs. Armed with a can of gasoline, a bottle of oil and a clutch of newspapers, I kicked and struggled my way through a tangle of growth that choked an abandoned alley at the back of lots to the little cloistered school and up the steps.” — From an unpublished memoir by Philip Partridge, former Highland County engineer.

“I am eight years old, and women and children appear and disappear outside my third-grade classroom window. They carry signs with messages. OUR CHILDREN PLAY TOGETHER, WHY CAN’T THEY LEARN TOGETHER?…There I am, floating in my inner tube in the plastic pool in the backyard on Danville Pike, soaking up the cultural commotion, riding my bike around in it, watching it from behind a window at school, fascinated by the drama, the characters who come and go. But I have no story to hold it, and I remain mute, in the dark, wondering, haunted.” — from The Hillsboro Story.

“How does a kid arrive at a resolution that shakes his world? Is there a sense of justice even in young children.” — From Partridge’s memoir. 

Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, mothers and children in Hillsboro, Ohio protest continuing segregation of the town’s schools. Photo courtesy of Susan Banyas.

Back to a place of one of many beginnings

“It’s hard to know where a story begins,” Susan Banyas says on a recent afternoon, sitting in a Ladd’s Addition coffee shop a few blocks from where she lived when she began the lengthy artistic exploration that has become her book, The Hillsboro Story.

Indeed it is. You might consider the beginning of The Hillsboro Story to be one of those days when young Susan gazes out a Webster School window, her attention momentarily pulled away from Charlotte’s Web, being read aloud by Mrs. Mallory, and onto the puzzling protest that goes on outside, day after day for two years. But maybe it started with Philip Partridge, a white man wanting to further the cause of social justice, deciding to torch the decrepit, Reconstruction-era Lincoln School, where blacks were sent, figuring that its destruction would force integration of the town’s other schools. 

Perhaps you’d need to go back to Partridge’s politically aware childhood epiphany that he would one day “do something that would strike a blow at the way things were.” Or might it start back further still, in the legacy of quiet activism by Banyas’ Quaker forebears, who built a secret room in a cistern to hide fugitive slaves as part of the Underground Railroad?
Then again, one of the many short segments of narrative, reflection, oral history and commentary that make up the text of Banyas’ book is called “This Is the Beginning – May, 2003, Hillsboro, Ohio” — marking her first meeting with the grass-roots freedom fighters she refers to as the Marching Mothers. But since the process behind the book — pulling together not just the interviews and research, but also personal memories and emotions, impressions of place, resonant coincidences and dreams — is so much of what constitutes the book, you could as aptly point to its beginnings in the mid-1980s, when Banyas, began innovating and teaching a hybrid storytelling performance form she calls Soul Stories. 

The Hillsboro Story is Banyas’ own Soul Story, on paper and writ large.

The now of the story

Author, teacher, performance artist Susan Banyas. Photo: Quincy Davis

On Thursday, September 19, Banyas will visit Broadway Books (1714 NE Broadway in Portland) at 7 p.m. to present a reading from The Hillsboro Story. Multidisciplinary artist that she is, she’s prepared a 12-minute multi-media synopsis of the story and will use music by her frequent collaborator, the jazz musician David Ornette Cherry, to augment her reading of excerpts from the book.

The story at an earlier stage

Though she moved to Astoria a few years ago, Banyas has had a long career in Portland as a dancer, writer, performance artist and teacher. I’ve been a fan since I first wrote about her work for Willamette Week in the late 1980s, when she ran a studio on Southeast Stark Street called Dreamswell. So perhaps you’ve encountered her work before, maybe even something called The Hillsboro Story.
Yet another beginning, you could say, came in 2010 when Artists Rep presented The Hillsboro Story as a work for the stage. 

The Oregonian (well, really it was me — I was the paper’s staff theater critic at the time) called it “one of the most important pieces of theater presented in Portland this year”:

“The Hillsboro in Banyas’ multilayered memory play isn’t the city in Oregon, but a small town in southern Ohio, not far north of the Mason-Dixon Line,” I wrote.

“In 1954, the Supreme Court handed down its landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, which essentially declared segregated public schools unconstitutional. But black children in Hillsboro still were relegated to a segregated, Reconstruction-era schoolhouse. The county engineer, a white man, set fire to the school to try to force desegregation, but still the local school board dragged its feet.

Enter “the Marching Mothers,” as Banyas calls them, and the NAACP and the first Northern test case for the high court’s Brown decision.

…In her view, integration is a concept that includes the civil-rights sense of racial desegregation but is much broader and deeper. It encompasses (Martin Luther) King’s ‘beloved community’ ideal, built on a vision of what he called ‘the solidarity of the human family.’ It speaks to its semantic relative, ‘integrity,’ with the corresponding implications of strength and balance. It reflects her interdisciplinary way of making art, which dances gracefully between the whimsical and the profound.

Even though it deals with events a half-century ago, its underlying themes are resonant and relevant today — so much so that Portland Public Schools created an extensive curriculum based on ‘The Hillsboro Story,’ not only to help students understand the historical facts and themes of the play but also to learn how to look at their own lives and surroundings through the craft of storytelling.

As Banyas puts it in an introductory essay she’s written for the play, ‘Memory is not about the past, any more than a right angle is about geometry.’”

Susan’s web

Embedded in Banyas’ memory and her emotional connection to the varied aspects of the story is Charlotte’s Web, her “favorite thing about third grade.” The themes of friendship, community, concern for the welfare of others, and the importance of bold action in support of a just cause — all of these connect E.B. White’s classic children’s tale with the values Banyas espouses throughout The Hillsboro Story.

Another commonality is the idea of messages embedded in a web. Banyas’ book is written as a series of short sections, sometimes as short as a few paragraphs, seldom longer than a few pages. Their overall structure is complex, sometimes elliptical, occasionally repetitive, rarely chronological or linear. Many sections are scenic in nature, some more documentary and historical, some personal and reflective, while others are straightforward oral-history transcriptions. The content ranges in scope from the details of how the desegregation fight progressed to the practical and emotional ramifications for those involved, to dark observations on the mechanisms of economic and geopolitical power. The subtitle — “a kaleidoscope history of an integration battle in my hometown” — is telling. It’s her story and she tells it her way; but that way insists on an ever-shifting multiplicity of voices and perspectives, and utilizes a sometimes dizzying fluidity in regard to time, moving rapidly from 1982 to 1955, back to 1982, to 1990, to 2003, back to 1955, then eventually to the mid-19th century, the 1960s and ‘70s, 2015… 

“It’s a quest,” she says during our coffeehouse conversation. “I tried a more conventional method, and I just wasn’t interested in it. One of the questions I wanted to ask with all this was: How powerful is it to take a single memory and walk back into it?”

Susan Banyas’ great-great-grandparents moved to Highland County, Ohio in 1837. The area’s Quaker population would work for justice, sheltering fugitive slaves in the 19th century, and helping to home school protesting black students in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Susan Banyas.

At points, the book reflects upon its own methods: “A story’s choreography is global and geographic when you step back and look at life this way — how you circle around and have chance encounters, how your life starts to take a shape, how, little by little, your blues hit the heat of imagination and you are somewhere else.”

Or, as she puts it when her quest brings out a particularly strange and fortuitous confluence of personal histories: “I feel like Nancy Drew on acid.”

A template

Banyas acknowledges that her account is far from a conventional history. “It must not have been an easy sell to publishers,” I remark.

 “The academics wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole,” she says with a rueful chuckle. “And who’s at the center of it? Me. So I’m more suspect from the point of view of a straight-ahead publisher.”

But the project found a home with publisher Todd Thilleman, whose Spuyten Duyvil press specializes in “avant-garde books…honest and reality-based imaginative texts…shot-in-the-dark efforts,” according to its mission statement. 

“He saw it as an art book, a kind of documentary,” Banyas said. “And that worked for me, because it’s really a template. It’s meant to bounce you into your own thoughts, not to resolve itself. I didn’t want it to be like The Help, where you just go away and congratulate yourself on having read the book….

“I hope it’s used for people to start recalling their own memories — talking to Uncle So-and-So, looking into privilege and history and what’s right in front of us that we’re not talking about. I think we always have to ask: Who’s controlling the narrative? I hope people wake up to their own experience and don’t take anyone’s word for anything.”

Word wide web

Toward the end of the book, Banyas periodically poses a question to some of the people involved in the desegregation battle all those years ago:

“‘If you were Charlotte,’ I ask…, ‘what word would you choose to weave into the web — to save the world?’” Among the answers she hears are “friendship,” “curiosity” and “fair play.”
I wonder what word Banyas would choose. “Integration,” perhaps? “Connection”? Or maybe “Soul Story.”

You have to start somewhere

“As a movement artist, I wanted to write a book about the movement and spiritual intelligence of protest because as a white person, schooled and socialized in America, I was denied access to this intelligence because of fear and ignorance,” Banyas said in an interview with writer Deborah Kalb. “I had to re-member, piece a history together, retrieve the parts of my memory — history that had been kept in the shadows, demonized, or simply ignored.”

“News was becoming national,” she writes of the desegregation case reaching the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. “My sweet little home town would have a hard time hiding out in the hills now, pretending to be a Norman Rockwell painting.”
Some of the most engaging, illuminating moments in “The Hillsboro Story” come when Banyas subtly indicts the mid-American orthodoxy she grew up with — that ignoring, that willful ignorance — by juxtaposing mundane, superficially innocent lifestyle details with broader social developments. It’s her way of stepping — fitfully at first, then purposefully —  out of that Rockwell world and into her truth.

About the summer of 1967 she writes: “The whole country is awake now…tuning in and turning on a new social order.
“I carry on in the social order and get a summer job as a lifeguard at the Chillicothe Country Club where I can swim laps, practice my diving moves, work on my tan while on the job. The wealthy housewives stretch out on the reclining lawn chairs, gossip, rub Coppertone into their skin, smoke Salems, order club sandwiches from the kitchen, made and served by the Black help, read Vogue and Redbook.

“Four hours north, Detroit burns for four days.”

About having married at age 20, she muses: “Fortunately, I have seen my first Felliini film, and the strange people in Juliet of the Spirits have captured my imagination, but for now, I am stuck in a trailer park on the outskirts of Athens, Ohio trying to cook a pot roast. You have to start somewhere.”

Not long afterward, teaching jobs bring her and her husband to Oregon, where she becomes fast friends with a free-spirited and opinionated colleague: “Rosie and I laugh so hard, I am born again.”

Still ready to laugh: Susan Banyas near her home in Astoria. Photo: Dorinda Holler.

Of conspiracy and credulity

“Sometimes meaning is amplified by seemingly whimsical gesture, as when she gives a bit of background on her school’s namesake, Daniel Webster,” I wrote in  my review for The Oregonian of The Hillsboro Story play, back in 2010. “Describing him as a ‘centrist,’ she says the word while giving a little limp wriggle, as if to denote a slippery spinelessness.”

Now, as then, I’m bothered by the aspersion. Partly because I don’t think political values have to be extreme to be authentic or useful, partly because I wish that Banyas availed herself of a bit more centrist-style caution. 

As much as I’ve always liked her and her work, and as much as The Hillsboro Story is engaging and illuminating overall, I sometimes found it tough to read. On top of its determinedly non-linear structure (plus a lamentable number of copy-editing and proof-reading gaffes), it strains so far to make points about systemic corruption that two-thirds through we’re far from Southern Ohio and instead are mired in digressions about the deaths of Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold.  

She recalls the deaths of JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, writing “I grew up on Nancy Drew and Perry Mason. I can spot the criminals…I am only fifteen, but it is clear to me that the whole thing was an inside job.” How Perry Mason can be the basis of such certitude I don’t know, but fine. Before long, though, there’s discussion of “corporate mafia,” “Vatican mafia,” “shadow government,” a “black underground communication network,” “the new world order” and so on. She recounts claims by Philip Partridge, the engineer-turned-arsonist, that secret agents used invisible laser weapons to cause him various illnesses. Then she Googles a few things about experimental weapons research, connects dots to Obama-ordered drone strikes and the like and concludes, “I don’t need to fact-check remote control torture to postulate whether Philip Partridge was writing about real or imagined experience” — as though possibility establishes fact.

Both Patridge and Banyas may well be right about such sinister forces at work. But such claims read here more like histrionics than history. 

Memory serves

And yet, her overarching argument is hard to quibble with. Discussing the efforts of the likes of Constance Baker Motley, Daniel Ellsberg, Sen. Frank Church, and, by extension, the Marching Mothers, Banyas writes: “The social engineers fighting to unify society through equal protection were shadow-boxing against covert, internalized, systemic racism and a deadly game for geopolitical world domination, a ‘grand strategy’ of complete control of earth’s resources through supremacy in the military, marketplace, media, and most of all, memory.

“..This story is not about small-town drama, although drama drives the story. The story is about power, about who controls memory, who has the authority to speak.”

Home school of the heart

In a way, The Hillsboro Story is an answer to one of the questions that Banyas quotes from Philip Partridge’s memoir. Yes, there is a sense of justice even in young children. And Banyas has artfully traced her way back to its origins in her own life, as well as followed its call outward, into the lives of others. 

 “It really gets down to relationships,” she says as we finish our coffee. “You can’t argue those — or judge them. They’re very personal. It’s always a little mysterious to me that history isn’t written more in this way — it’s so relational.

 “The women of Hillsboro taught me a lot about love and common sense at the heart of justice.”

Local literary talent blooms in ‘Paper Gardens 2019’

More than 50 Yamhill County writers of poetry and prose are featured in the collection that recently hit bookstore and library shelves

Over the past couple of decades, Yamhill County writers and arts advocates have developed an infrastructure to assist their own, and the most visible of those efforts — a published volume of local prose and poetry — recently hit the shelves in libraries and bookstores.

Paper Gardens 2019 is a 116-page collection featuring work by more than 50 writers of all ages. They were among hundreds who submitted work in the categories of traditional poetry, free verse, haiku, fiction, and nonfiction. Two professional judges (one for poetry, one for prose) narrowed the field, and the book featuring their selections was released at a ceremony at the Chehalem Cultural Center earlier this year.

More so than live theater, music, or visual art, a region’s literary scene can be tough to track. The work is produced largely in isolation, often by those who are disinclined to call attention to themselves, and only a few of whom reach a level where the resources of a major publisher or magazine are brought to bear in nudging an author’s work into full public view.

The Arts Alliance of Yamhill County has published Paper Gardens 2019, featuring the prose and verse of more than 50 Yamhill County residents. The cover art is by Jeanne Cuddeford.
The Arts Alliance of Yamhill County has published “Paper Gardens 2019,” featuring the prose and verse of more than 50 Yamhill County residents. The cover art is by Jeanne Cuddeford. Photo by: David Bates

Paper Gardens, sponsored by the Arts Alliance of Yamhill County and made possible with sponsorships by McMinnville Kiwanis and McMinnville Noon Rotary, has (with other events) helped raise the visibility of such writers.


Exploring the epistolary art

Participants in a Sitka Center workshop may discover how letter-writing can survive the digital age, keep people connected, and restore deep focus

Tucked in the back of my closet is a small, blue suitcase I’ve hauled around with me since I was 18. Inside are bundles of letters, handwritten to me in the first years after I moved from Pennsylvania to Alaska.

Letters from my mom address my plans to move to France (“I don’t think France cares for us right now,” she wrote in 1979 on lined legal-pad paper) and eventually to study for my real-estate license. Letters from the musician I’d agreed to marry seem aimed at inspiring guilt, as in “I thought you were coming back.” Letters from my older sister detail, in her near-perfect penmanship, the mundanity of our small town – whom she ran into, where she applied for a job, how her daughter was (or was not) behaving.

Back then, unless you could afford the long-distance bills (my phone was frequently disconnected, thanks to my inability to keep-it-short), letters were how you kept in touch.

Laura Moulton will teach a workshop Aug. 17 and 18 on "The Art of the Letter" that will include making collage envelopes to deliver students' missives into the world.
Laura Moulton will teach a workshop Aug. 17 and 18 on “The Art of the Letter” that will include making collage envelopes to deliver students’ missives into the world. Photo courtesy: Laura Moulton

In recent years, I realized how much I missed writing – and receiving – personal letters, and I decided I was going to start writing them again. I even bought “fine parchment paper” and matching envelopes found on a clearance rack.

But after years of hurriedly filling reporters’ notebooks day after day after day after month after year, my  handwriting is illegible. It takes huge concentration for me to form an “ing” — the three letters have morphed into a hump with a loop. Likewise, the word “every” looks like an e with a wave and a loop. So while I was drawn to the idea of handwriting letters, I never quite got there. Sure, I could probably sit myself down and write a bit more nicely, but frankly, I’m not sure I have the patience.

Then, I saw the description for the upcoming class on The Art of the Letter: Writing, Collage & Mail Art at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology:


Tin House: vulnerability & risk

As its celebrated literary journal shuts down, the Portland publishing house's summer writing workshops at Reed College continue to thrive.


Midsummer has arrived in Oregon, and every surface at Reed College seems ripe with books. The campus is hosting the sixteenth annual Tin House Summer Workshop, as a few minutes walking the grounds makes plain. Signs for lecture destinations and attendee housing point in every direction. Above Cerf Amphitheatre, tables are stacked high with various issues of Tin House’s quarterly journal. 

The journal’s final issue – printed in July, and marking the end of a 20-year run for one of Portland’s most esteemed and far-reaching literary magazines – stands out from its predecessors, a robust volume with a pitch-black cover on which is etched a gilded rendition of the press’s logo.

Tin House has come a long way since it was founded in 1999 as a literary journal and nothing more. It was established by Holly MacArthur and Win McCormack (MacArthur remains a founding editor and deputy publisher; McCormack, who is also editor in chief of The New Republic since buying the magazine in 2016, is Tin House’s publisher and editor in chief), but it was not until 2003 that the publishing house held its first writing workshop at Reed. Another five years went by before Tin House also became a press, publishing novels, nonfiction, and poetry.

This was my first year attending the conference. Its lectures, panels, and readings have always been open to the public, although the workshops themselves are strictly for accepted applicants. In most cases, those accepted are also required to pay a substantial fee to cover the cost of working closely with some of the United States’ literary superstars.


Poet D.A. Howell, “The Godfather” of Tin House’s writing workshops.

THE 2019 WORKSHOP, which ran July 7-14, included many big-name authors, among them R.O Kwon, Garth Greenwell, Natalie Diaz, Camille T. Dungy, Kaveh Akbar, and Mitchell S. Jackson. Also in attendance was poet D.A. Powell, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, who has earned the affectionate nickname “The Godfather” for having attended every Tin House summer workshop since 2003.


Poetry, painting, and polemics: ‘The Zine Show’ has it all

A show at Salem's Bush Barn Art Center & Annex demonstrates Oregon's zine scene is alive and well

If one were taking the vital signs of a region’s cultural life, the vitality of the local zine scene, it seems to me, would be a key indicator. It’s part of the fabric of an area’s DIY culture that can include (but is hardly limited to) a broad range of artistic forms: bookmaking, paper arts, collage, comics, drawing, photography, poetry, prose and polemics.

Based on The Zine Show, an exhibition at the Bush Barn Art Center & Annex in Salem, I’d venture that the state’s zine scene is alive and well. The exhibition, which  features zines from around Oregon, closes July 10, and a reception for the artists will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 5. Admission is free.

Bush Barn Art Center & Annex in Salem has opened one of its galleries to a selection of 'zines by Oregon artists, along with work by Salem artists Miranda Abrams and Eilish Gormley.
Bush Barn Art Center & Annex in Salem has opened one of its galleries to a selection of zines by Oregon artists, along with work by Salem artists Miranda Abrams and Eilish Gormley. Photo by: David Bates

Bush Barn really packed the gallery for this one. More than 70 zines are displayed, and artwork by Miranda Abrams and Eilish Gormley adorns the walls. The gallery space is relatively small, but there’s a lot to look at. Visitors should plan on spending at least a half-hour to take it all in. There’s plenty to read; it’s like folding a leisurely bookstore visit into an art-gallery trip.


‘It’s not my poetry that matters, it’s poetry that matters’

Conversation and coffee with Oregon Book Awards finalist José Angel Araguz. Plus, McMinnville's festival of recycled art.

Here are two ways to know a poet:

One is to read the work, which in the case of José Angel Araguz, offers an astonishingly intimate window into his journals – not “poetry notebooks,” per se, but the Moleskines where he writes his personal diary by hand. Here, one gets a sense of his concerns and perspectives, his feel for language, etc. After completing a volume, he’ll put it aside, and only a year or two later when he returns does the poetry start to take shape.

The other is to meet for coffee.

I did both. As I drained an Americano at Starbucks, Araguz apologized a couple of times for the “tangential” nature of his thoughts, which over the course of an hour twisted and turned through anecdotes, opinions, and recollections. Interviews like this can be tough, though this one soon morphs into the kind that isn’t – an absorbing conversation with a clear takeaway, which is this: This gentle-spoken, 36-year-old first-generation American from Corpus Christi, Texas, is as passionate an advocate for poetry as you’re likely to meet.

Yamhill County poet José Angel Araguz: an advocate for poetry.

Araguz was among those up for an award Monday at the Oregon Book Awards, held in the Gerding Theater at the Armory in Portland. His collection Until We Are Level Again, published in 2018 by Mongrel Empire Press, was nominated for the Stafford/Hall Award for Poetry by Oregon Literary Arts. Like much of his work, it’s a memoirish collection inspired by the years he spent growing up poor, and particularly, by a father who died in prison when Araguz was only seven.


Poet Alice Derry: Speaking out against barbarism

Derry, who will lead a workshop on writing political poetry at the Terroir Writing Festival, says the personal is the way to approach bearing witness

Aspiring poets who struggle either with writing or getting published should take heart from the example of Alice Derry. She doesn’t consider herself a natural; a teacher even once “shut down” her work in school, she said. But she discovered early on that poetry provided her with “necessary oxygen,” and she made it her life’s work.

On Saturday, Derry will lead a workshop at the sold-out Terroir Creative Writing Festival in McMinnville on “Writing the Political Poem.” Many of her poems are political in nature, with topics that range from the psychic scars left by Nazi Germany to the Sandy Hook school shooting. Derry’s approach, according to the workshop notes, is to “begin with the personal and vulnerable, and then reach out, drawing honest and authentic parallels.”

Alice Derry says she “came to poetry consciously mostly through desire and not through an inherent love of language.” She adds, “My first book of poems involved a 10-year process of reading, writing, revising, revising, revising.”

Alice Derry says she “came to poetry consciously, mostly through desire, and not through an inherent love of language.” She adds, “My first book of poems involved a 10-year process of reading, writing, revising, revising, revising.”

Derry’s “personal and vulnerable” approach is evident in her work, which includes six poetry collections, the most recent of which is Hunger, published in 2018 by Tillamook-based MoonPath Press. Prior to corresponding with her this spring, I sat down with Hunger and then later with an earlier collection, Strangers to Their Courage. This book, according to her website, was “distilled from more than thirty years of experiences with the Germans and their language” and explores the meaning of “her investment in a population compromised and reviled” by 20th-century fascism and the Holocaust. Poems in this collection are based in large part on conversations with relatives who lived in Germany during World War II. The book was a finalist for the 2002 Washington Book Award.

Derry is an Oregon native raised in Montana and Washington, where she taught writing and German at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Wash., for 30 years before retiring. Her work has appeared Southern Poetry Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Portland Review, The Seattle Review, Hubbub, Crab Creek Review, and Raven Chronicles. She also can lay claim to having had Raymond Carver say this about her first manuscript, Stages of Twilight: “I felt she was writing about real things, things that counted. Her poems seemed honest in their conception and execution — they made a claim on my interest right away. I would even say they made a claim on my heart.”