Alpha Phi Alpha Fratnerity Inc., a historically black fraternity, is a major landlord in Akron, owning more than 800 rental units. How that came to be is depicted in a new documentary film that debuts Monday night on PBS Western Reserve in honor of Black History Month.
A history of progressive thinking
Drew Perkins’ film “An Answer from Akron” chronicles the city’s history as a sanctuary for slaves and how that played into Alphi Phi Alpha’s bold move to build affordable housing in the city some 50 years ago.
“When we look at what they did, and here again it was Judge (James) Williams — they’ll all tell you, it was his idea — the stuff that they faced (was challenging)," Perkins said. "They started in 1966. Two years later Dr. King dies. Nobody at that point would ever think the government is going to give a group of black men $14 million to do that.”
James Williams earned his law degree at the University of Akron and was the first African American to serve as a Summit County Common Pleas judge.
He is described in the film as a natural born leader who convinced his fraternity brothers to pursue the federal assistance made available to build housing for people displaced by urban renewal projects undertaken during that time.
Narrator Leon Bibb, a longtime local broadcaster and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, describes the moment Alpha found out its application for federal assistance had been approved.
“Finally the letter comes,” Bibb reads. “The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development awards a loan of $11.4 million to Alpha Phi Alpha Homes for the purpose of building affordable housing in Akron. James Williams’ idea lives.”
Two steps forward, one step back
But the fraternity's victory brought scrutiny on its members.
"One thing that's not in the movie, because I couldn't do it because I ran out of time, is that as soon as they got that first check, all of them were audited," Perkins said. "They had a meeting and one of them casually said, ‘Yeah, I’m getting audited. I got something from the IRS.' And then another one said, 'So did I, so did I.' And you just think, God, that’s that systematic racism, that’s not out in front. Obviously, somebody told the IRS there’s no way these guys are going to spend the money the way they’re supposed to. It's a very sad point, but these guys didn’t get angry. They just kept going and look at it, they’re still around today."
Alpha Phi Alpha Homes offers housing in 10 northeast Ohio communities and in Chicago. Many of its facilities are intended for senior citizens. There are also family housing locations and condominiums that continue to succeed against the odds.
"I’m from Baltimore," Perkins notes. "And I remember Baltimore basically blew up all those buildings built at the same time the Alpha buildings were, because they were havens for drugs, havens for crime. They just didn’t work. And that’s not just Baltimore that’s all over the country."
Perkins visited Alpha properties and said they all still look great.
"It’s because they take a great pride in what they do," he said.
When asked why this project worked so well in Akron, Perkins said, "That to me is the thesis of the film. I think it could only have happened in Akron."
In researching for the film, Perkins recognized a tradition of progressive thinking in Akron.
"That’s not to say Akron didn’t have its own problems with racism, because it did," Perkins said. "At one point there was a big part of the KKK here. But they overcame that."
He says the city has a history of "evaluating itself," with leaders committed to positive change.
"At that point in time in Akron, it's the old adage — the right people in the right place at the right time."
Perkins was born and raised in Texas and credits his parents for raising him to be open-minded. This is the second film he has made about Alpha Phi Alpha. He also made a film about the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American military pilots who fought in World War II. He is not African American.
"After making that movie (about the Tuskegee Airmen), that opened a lot of doors. I'm flattered they have confidence in me to tell stories like this," Perkins said. "I'm also very honored that they don’t care I’m a white guy because I can share the same feelings, passions and emotions that they have."