Students and community members witnessed the power of forgiveness Sunday evening, and again at convocation Monday, after hearing author and award-winning filmmaker Wilbert Smith.
Smith, an insurance agent from California, told the story of his friend, Vertus Hardiman. Smith and Hardiman met through their church choir.
Hardiman was born in 1922 in Lyle’s Station, Ind., and at the age of five became a victim of illegal medical experimentation aimed specifically at African-American children. The experiments were allegedly carried out to study how much radiation the human body could handle.
Hardiman’s story began in what Smith referred to as America’s “radiation craze.” This was a time when common belief held that radiation was the power of the sun, a cure-all for any illness or disease, Smith said. The U.S. at that time wanted test subjects for these radiation experiments, so they told parents that they were testing the effects of radiation on scalpel ringworm.
As a five-year-old boy, Hardiman was administered the radiation treatment, resulting in a large hole in the side of his head that remained until he died in 2007, Smith said.
But the story of Smith’s movie “is not what happened to Vertus, but about how he lived on afterward,” he said. What impressed Smith the most was not that Vertus had hidden the gash on his scalp beneath a black beanie for almost 80 years, but that in spite of his pain, he was never angry and never complained.
“If you’re angry,” said Hardiman on film, “that means your heart’s not right.” Smith recalled that after asking Hardiman repeatedly if he was angry, Hardiman never was.
Smith was so inspired by Hardiman's story that he produced it into a movie, "Hole in the Head," following Hardiman's death.
Working with Hardiman to tell the story helped Smith in ways he never expected. “I had an opportunity to let go of my father through working with Vertus,” said Smith, whose father was killed when Smith was a child.
Smith uses Hardiman's story as a testament to racial discrimination, particularly within the medical field.
“When we look at racism in medical systems, we see how racism perpetuates itself in other systems,” said Regina Shands-Stoltzfus, assistant professor of peace, justice, and conflict studies, who introduced Smith at the Sunday event.
Shands-Stoltzfus taught a class that ran over the weekend, Conversations on Race, which taught theoretical perspective on racism, but also focused on how racism remains prevalent in various institutions, using the medical system as an example.
Hardiman's story can be found at www.holeinthehead.com. According to Smith, the story will be made into a feature film, potentially starring Morgan Freeman, within the next two to three years.