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Lighting the Fire: Documentarian spotlights a beloved figure in UT Austin history to inspire others

Vidal Marsh (center) with two proud members of the UT Precursors Peggy and Col. Leon Holland. The Hollands are among several members of the university community who are featured in the documentary, which is projected to premiere at the spring 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
Vidal Marsh (center) with two proud members of the UT Precursors Peggy and Col. Leon Holland. The Hollands are among several members of the university community who are featured in the documentary, which is projected to premiere at the spring 2019 SXSW Film Festival.

While brainstorming ideas for a documentary project, Vidal Marsh often reflects on his memories from summer camp of sitting around the campfire with his cabin mates, all eyes fixated on the dancing flames as a storyteller shares tales of legends and lore.

Now a filmmaker and TV producer living in Los Angeles, Marsh strives to create that same sense of wonderment by revolving his stories around a captivating focal point. In his new documentary, “Still Overcoming,” that flickering fire is his aunt, Almetris Duren, a dormitory housemother and Dean of Students employee who was a mentor to Black students from 1956 to 1980.

“Documentaries are like campfire conversations,” Marsh says. “They hold your attention and elevate the whole experience. I want to create a story around the fire that was my aunt.”

The campfire analogy is fitting for a woman who is considered by many as a powerful force on the UT Austin campus back in its early days of integration. Lovingly known as “Mama Duren,” she guided students through their academic journey at Eliza Dee Hall, an off-campus building owned by Huston-Tillotson University located many blocks from the UT Austin campus.

“I look at my aunt in a mythological sense because obstacles were constantly in her way, but she never yelled at anyone or raised her fist,” Marsh says. “She just kept asking, ‘How can I hold you accountable to your word?’ She would also say, ‘I’m looking for fair and I’m looking for right.’ I think those are tremendous tenets to hold onto. I hope we can continue that dialogue.”

Photo of Almetris Duren
Photo of Almetris Duren courtesy of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

Knowing her students were isolated from segregated campus activities, Duren created spaces where they could gather. To keep them from returning home in frustration, she often prepared home-cooked meals and helped them get transportation to and from school

“If you’re not pledging a sorority, competing in sports or joining an academic club, what are you connecting to?” Marsh says. “I understand why she created these spaces. It was her way of having people connect.”

Marsh calls Duren one of UT’s “Hidden Figures,” a term popularized by a recent blockbuster movie about three brilliant African American women who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in NASA history. Like those women, Duren kept moving forward against the headwind of oppression.

“In this world, we have survivors and thrivers,” Marsh says. “Most of us are survivors, people who work hard to elevate themselves and are always scratching and clawing to get better and better. My aunt was a thriver. She was not living for herself. Even though she was financially fit, she lived in a dorm for decades. She didn’t need to do that, but she wanted to help people and add to their lives.”

In the film, a few of the first students Duren served, now known as The Precursors, shared memories of their beloved dorm mother who quietly yet firmly demanded fairness and respect. Although she was small in stature, Marsh says she was a giant on campus.

“The Precursors are all thriving people, and a lot of that has to do with the love they have for each other and the connections they are making with others,” Marsh says. “It all comes back to the reverence they have for this small woman who commanded so much respect. I can understand there was a soul in her that her students wanted to become a part of.”

By telling his aunt’s story, Marsh aims to appeal to a wide audience, prompting them to ask questions about how they, too, could make a difference for those who are facing systematic barriers. He hopes the film will spur questions about current issues such as affordable housing, diversity measures in schools and the adverse effects of gentrification.

“This film has to be inclusive because I need to hear all the voices,” Marsh says. “If you want a call to action film, you have to get people of all walks of life to connect to the story. Unfortunately, in our society, viewers are more likely to be mobilized when they see people who look like them.”

His hope is to carry on his aunt’s legacy by motivating people to uplift and support others around them. Whether that means smiling and making eye contact with a stranger on the street or championing a campaign for human rights, he wants his viewers to come away from the film with the desire to make a difference.

“My goal is to make an impact in the community,” Marsh says. “I would love that our stars are the people who, like my aunt, come from the community and want to make a change.”