It’s not every day that you’re given an opportunity to name your own project. A little over a year ago I was reviewing a list of upcoming video projects with our Dean (College of Education) and she asked if I had anything extra I’d like to work on for the year….
Back in 2012 I collaborated on a short video project with Richard Pitts, a friend from the Manhattan area. For over a decade he has led tours through the Wabaunsee / Manhattan area telling local stories of the underground railroad. In 2014 we kicked around the idea of doing a documentary on the underground railroad in Wabaunsee, KS. After finally going on a tour with him I thought it would be a unique opportunity to showcase the history of the area through his eyes. Time and funding stopped us from realizing that goal. So now that I had the opportunity, I mentioned the concept to Dean Mercer and she enthusiastically said yes!
With her generous support, we began planning a film based off of the “African Americans” series with Henry Louis Gates Jr. It is an incredible series definitely worth watching. The production value and collection of history are landmark in my humble opinion.
Originally we planned on retelling just five stories from Richard’s tour. These would all be local stories about the New Haven colony that eventually formed the Beecher Bible and Rifle church. Richard would play the part of narrator / history enthusiast that would interview relatives of individuals from the area. We would shoot each interview with a two camera set up so that Richard was always present and integral to the stories being told.We would also narrate key sections of the film with a lot of pretty b-roll of historic locations on the underground railroad.We also planned on a series of historical reenactments that acted as symbolism of what the slaves may have endured on their journey north. Kristofer Bailey, a graduate student, from our last A walk in my Shoes series played the part of one of our run away slaves, as well as a co-worker of Mr. Pitt’s and her daughters.
*What seemed like a simple plan soon began to blossom as we met with local historians, educators, and descendants of abolitionists. For every story we researched , or person interviewed our “simple” plans began weaving into side stories that connected them to a much bigger picture covering not just Kansas, but several states.
It is absolutely incredible to work on someones family history and discover how personal these events were in their lives. Similar to my own family history, I found people trying to do the right thing. . . sometimes stumbling along the way. . . but often feeling called back for a greater good. Those that worked on the underground railroad really were the best of the brave and peculiar people in there time. The were from a mix of religions, and backgrounds. Some came to Kansas specifically to make it a free state, others came for a patch of land and open skies; but all were invariably caught up in the movement in one way or another.
Over the last six months my research continued to branch while we scripted parts of the narration. The interviews we originally captures also lead us along a path of discovery. I am indebted to Michael Stubbs, and Brad Burenheide for helping be navigate the history of this complex territory. For someone that is relatively new to Kansas I can honestly say I know more about this states early history than my own.
**There is a reason why NOVA programs as so tightly scripted! They typically research all of their programs long before they go into production. While we have had to do a lot of learning along the way of producing it has still been a very organic and heartfelt experience. I am very grateful to have had the time to discover new stories along the way and been encouraged to dig a little deeper so that we have a much richer story to tell. They say that truth is much stranger than fiction. By all accounts, the story of the underground railroad in Kansas lives up to that saying.
Stay tuned for more updates and further stories.