“We want to be accepted just the way we are.”
“We want to be accepted just the way we are.”
Simeon Wright recalls the events surrounding his cousin’s murder and the importance of having the casket on public display
In 1955, Emmett Till—a 14-year-old African-American visiting Mississippi from Chicago—was murdered after whistling at a white woman. His mother insisted that her son be displayed in a glass-topped casket, so the world could see his beaten body. Till’s murder became a rallying point for the civil rights movement, and his family recently donated the casket in which he was buried to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Till’s cousin Simeon Wright, 67, who was with him the night he was kidnapped and murdered, spoke with the magazine’s Abby Callard.
What was Emmett like?
He loved to tell jokes and loved for people to tell him jokes. In school, he might pull the fire alarm just to get out of class. To him that would be funny. We found out that what was dangerous to us was funny to him. He really had no sense of danger.
What happened at the store between Emmett and Carolyn Bryant has been debated, what do you remember happening?
We went to the store that night. My nephew that came down from Chicago with Emmett went into the store first, and Emmett went in the store after him. So Wheeler came out, and Maurice sent me inside the store to be with him to make sure he didn’t say anything out of line. There was about less than a minute that he was in there by himself. During that time I don’t know what he said, but when I was in there, he said nothing to her. He didn’t have time, she was behind the counter, so he didn’t put his arms around her or anything like that. While I was in there he said nothing. But, after we left the store, we both walked out together, she came outside going to her car. As she was going to her car, he did whistle at her. That’s what scared her so bad. The only thing that I saw him do was that he did whistle.
Because he was from Chicago, do you think Emmett’s unfamiliarity with the South during the Jim Crow era contributed to what happened?
It could have been the reason he did it, because he was warned not to do anything like that, how he was supposed to act. I think what he did was trying to impress us. He said, “You guys might be afraid to do something like this, but not me.” Another thing. He really didn’t know the danger. He had no idea how dangerous that was; because when he saw our reaction, he got scared too.
You were in the same bed as Emmett when the two men came for him, right?
Yes, when they came that night, that Sunday morning, he and I were in the same bed. I was the first one to wake up because I heard the noise and the loud talking. The men made me lie back down and ordered Emmett to get up and put his clothes on. During that time, I had no idea what was going on. Pretty soon, my mother came in there pleading with them not to take Emmett. At that point, she offered them money. One of the men, Roy Bryant, he kind of hesitated at the idea but J.W. Milam, he was a mean guy. He was the guy with the gun and the flashlight, he wouldn’t hear of it. He continued to have Emmett put his clothes on. Then, after Emmett was dressed, they marched him out of the house into a truck that was waiting outside. When they got out to the truck, they asked the person inside the truck, “Was this the right boy.” A lady’s voice responded that it was.
You attended the trial. Were you at all surprised that the murderers were acquitted?
I was shocked. I was expecting a verdict of guilty. I’m still shocked. I believe sincerely that if they had convicted those men 54 years ago that Emmett’s story wouldn’t have been in the headlines. We’d have forgotten about it by now.
Your family left Mississippi after the trial, right?
My mother left the same night [he was taken]. She left that house, she didn’t leave Mississippi, she left that house and went to a place called Sumner, where they had the trial. Her brother lived in Sumner, and she stayed there until his body was found. She was on the same train that his body was going back to Chicago. We left, my dad and my two brothers, left the Saturday, the Monday after the verdict. The verdict came in on a Friday, I believe, that Monday we were on a train headed to Chicago.
Why did you leave?
My mother was, she was so scared and there was no way that my dad was going to be able to live there anymore. After the verdict, my dad was so disappointed. He had had enough of Mississippi. He had heard of things like this happening to African Americans, but nothing had ever happened to him like that—firsthand victim of racism, and the Jim Crow system. He said that was enough. He just didn’t want no part of Mississippi anymore.
How did you and the rest of your family feel about Emmett’s mother’s decision to hold the funeral with an open casket?
Well, an open casket is a common thing in African American tradition. But one of the reasons they didn’t want her to open the casket was because of the stench, because of the smell. They designed the casket with the glass over it and what not. She said it herself, she wanted to world to see what those men had done to her son because no one would have believed it if they didn’t the picture or didn’t see the casket. No one would have believed it. And when they saw what happened, this motivated a lot of people that were standing, what we call “on the fence,” against racism. It encouraged them to get in the fight and do something about it. That’s why many say that that was the beginning of the civil rights era. From experience, you can add, what they mean by that is we was always as a people, African Americans, was fighting for our civil rights, but now we had the whole nation behind us. We had whites, we had Jews, Italians, Irishmen jumping in the fight, saying that racism was wrong.
How did the casket become available?
In 2005, we had to exhume Emmett’s body. The State of Mississippi would not reopen the case unless we could prove that the body buried at the cemetery was Emmett’s. State law prohibited us from placing that casket back into the grave, so we had to bury him in a new casket. We set this casket aside to preserve it because the cemetery was planning on making a memorial for Emmett and his mother. They was going to move his mother and have the casket on display. But you see what happened, someone took the money and discarded the casket in the shed.
How did you find out about the casket?
A radio personality called me about six in the morning asking me questions about it. They were on top of what was going on at the cemetery. I told him what was supposed to happen to the casket. He kept asking me questions and I said “Wait a minute, let me go out there and check and see. I don’t know what’s going on. Let me go out to cemetery and get some answers, find out what’s going on out there.” That’s when I saw the casket sitting in the shed deteriorating. The last time my cousin saw the casket it was inside of the building, preserved. We don’t know who moved it out into the shed but I got a chance to see it, it was just horrible the way they had discarded it like that without even notifying us. They could have called the family, but they didn’t.
Why did you decide to donate the casket to the Smithsonian?
Donating it to the Smithsonian was beyond our wildest dreams. We had no idea that it would go that high. We wanted to preserve it, we wanted to donate it to a civil rights museum. Smithsonian, I mean that’s the top of the line. It didn’t even cross our mind that it would go there, but when they expressed interested an in it, we was overjoyed. I mean, people are going to come from all over the world. And they’re going to view this casket, and they’re going to ask questions. “What’s the purpose of it?” And then their mothers or fathers or a curator, whoever is leading them through the museum, they’ll begin to explain to them the story, what happened to Emmett. What he did in Mississippi and how it cost him his life. And how a racist jury knew that these men were guilty, but then they go free. They’ll get a chance to hear the story, then they’ll be able to… perhaps, a lot of these young kids perhaps, they will dedicate their lives to law enforcement or something like that. They will go out and do their best to help the little guys that can’t help themselves. Because in Mississippi, in 1955, we had no one to help us, not even the law enforcement. No one to help us. I hope that this will inspire our younger generation to be helpers to one another.
What feelings do you experience when you see the casket today?
I see something that held the object of a mother’s unconditional love. And then I see a love that was interrupted and shattered by racial hatred without a cause. It brings back memories that some would like to forget, but to forget is to deny life itself. For as you grow older, you are going to find out life is laced with memories. You’re going to talk about the good old days. When you get 50, you’re going to talk about your teenage days. You’re going to listen to music from the teenage days. You don’t have to believe me, just trust me on that. I’m not talking about what I read in a book. I’m talking about what I’ve experienced already. Also, it brings to our memories where we have been and where we are now and where we’re going. People look at this casket and say, “You mean to tell me this happened in America?” And we will have a part of the artifacts from that era to prove to them that things like this went on in America. Just like the Civil War. By histories of the Civil War. Even today, it seems impossible to me that the Civil War took place in America. Here you have white fathers and sons fighting against each other. Mothers and daughters fighting against each other because one felt that slavery was wrong and one felt that it was all right. And they began to kill each over that. That’s hard for me to believe but I see the statues. I see the statues of the solders, the Union soldiers and the Confederate soldiers, and it just helps us to believe the past. This casket’s going to help millions to understand and believe that racism, the Jim Crow system, was alive and well in America back in 1955.
What is your hope for the casket?
Well, I hope, I know one thing, it’s going to speak louder than pictures, books or films because this casket is the very image of what has been written or displayed on these pictures. I hope it’s going to make people think “If I had been there in 1955, I would have done all I could to help that family.” If it could just evoke just that one thought in someone, it would be enough, because then they would go out and help their fellow man, their community and the church and the school, wherever. We have, you know, I just had a couple of months ago a young man, 14 years of age, committed suicide because of bullies in his school. If it could just evoke that one emotion, that “if I had been there, I would have helped you.” That’s all I want.
In what ways do you feel that Emmett’s story is still relevant today?
You know, it’s amazing that he is still relevant. Like I said at the beginning, the reason is because of the jury’s verdict. If the jury’s verdict had come in guilty, Emmett would have been forgotten about. But [Emmett’s story] shows people that if we allow lawlessness to go on, if we do nothing to punish those who break the law, then it’s going to get worse. It’s going to get worse. And we can look back and say, look what happened to Emmett. He was murdered for no reason, and those in charge did nothing about it. Wherever you have that, whatever city you have that in, it could be in Washington, it could be in New York, where you have murder and crime going on and the people do nothing about it, it’s going to increase and destroy your society.
Wright’s book, Simeon’s Story: An Eyewitness Account of the Kidnapping of Emmett Till (Lawrence Hill Books) will be released in January 2010.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s children called the museum with an intriguing invitation.
They had something they knew the National Museum of African American History and Culture wanted. So in January, curator Rex Ellis headed to Atlanta, slipped on a pair of white gloves, and carefully turned the pages of King’s traveling Bible. The public last saw it during President Obama’s second inauguration when it was borrowed from the family.
“It was heavier than I thought it would be,” remembers Ellis, the museum’s associate director of curatorial affairs. “Not only was it the weight of the object itself but the weight of what it was. You’re holding it like it’s a baby. I was uncomfortable holding it for long.”
Ellis and his colleagues didn’t hold it for long. The half-hour meeting with Martin III ended without a loan, a gift or any other promises. The Bible and a second key item, the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to King in 1964, were placed back into a bank vault.
When the museum opens Sept. 24, no major artifacts from the civil rights icon will be on display.
“It’s outrageous,” said Clarence Jones, the former King attorney who filed the copyright for his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963. “This is the Smithsonian. This is not just another party. This is one of the most important institutions now in the 21st century. And this is probably the greatest civil rights leader in the 20th century. I find it shameful and I’m sad.”
Jones doesn’t blame the museum’s curators, instead focusing on the widely known obstacle historians, filmmakers and others have faced for years: King’s children, Bernice, Martin III and Dexter.
For years, the siblings have blocked media outlets from using King’s words or image without paying what some have described as exorbitant licensing fees. The nonprofit foundation that built the monument to King on the Mall, finished in 2011, paid $800,000. The estate also has sued when they think they are not being sufficiently compensated. That included going after King’s close friend Harry Belafonte when the actor and singer wanted to sell letters and other papers given him by King for charity. Belafonte eventually sued the King estate and won the right to bring the items to auction. In 2013, the King estate, as part of a lawsuit, demanded that Andrew Young, another King confidant and the former mayor of Atlanta, be removed from the board of the King Center for Nonviolent Social Change after his foundation used material featuring King in a documentary. The case was dismissed.
The children have taken each other to court repeatedly. Bernice and Martin III once sued Dexter. Dexter sued them back. Most recently, Martin and Dexter sued Bernice over who has the authority to sell the Nobel Peace Prize and Bible. Former President Jimmy Carter was brought in to help mediate an agreement. Last month, a judge settled it instead, clearing the way for the brothers to sell the Nobel Prize and Bible.
Given these seemingly endless conflicts, historian David J. Garrow said he’s not surprised that the museum will open without a single item given or loaned by the King family.
“I could not be more cynical, more jaded on this subject,” said Garrow, who won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for his book “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” “Given the family’s behavior this last 20 years, they’re unlikely to have any interest in sharing without a large upfront payment.”
It’s not clear what the King children plan to do with the precious items now that the latest round of lawsuits is resolved.
Attempts to talk with the siblings offer a glimpse into the delicacy of the relationship.
For a week, the family did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. Finally, Dexter King asked Phillip Jones, a friend and the general manager of the King estate, to respond. In an interview Thursday night, Jones said the family would be open to the artifacts ending up in the museum but that there had been no discussions about how that might occur. The King children, he said, have been focused on repairing the relationships damaged by the most recent lawsuit.
“It’s an extraordinary museum and the family believes that, certainly,” said Jones. “And we think it would be wonderful if these items were there. We just haven’t been able to focus on it.”
But on Friday morning, Jones spoke to Dexter King, who told him he was not authorized to speak for the family, only the estate. Jones demanded that references to “family” or “we” be removed from any of his previous quotes.
“It would not even be this way if there had not been legal disagreements between these family members who are trying to heal,” said Jones. “[Dexter] reminded me how sensitive things are.”
It’s important to note that the museum has not asked to borrow items from the family.
Museum Director Lonnie Bunch said that’s because the museum prefers to seek out permanent works that don’t need to be returned. Michèle Gates Moresi, supervisory museum curator of collections, who also went on the January visit to Atlanta to see the Kings, described the meeting as a first step in building a relationship. In addition, the curators knew the legal dispute still hovered over the items and that, even if they were available to buy, the museum doesn’t have that kind of money on hand.
“I knew this was just going to be an exploratory face-to-face, a chance to get to meet them,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting going in that a miracle would happen and things would change overnight just because they met with us.”
“I knew this was just going to be an exploratory face-to-face, a chance to get to meet them,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting going in that a miracle would happen and things would change overnight just because they met with us.”
Ellis said that while there are no “major” artifacts from King in the new museum, he believes the exhibitions and works on display tell the story of the civil rights movement. There are 165 items listed under King at the museum, the majority of them photographs, vinyl records and buttons.
“There are artifacts that we wish we did have from his personal collection,” Ellis said, “but I would not say that what we have represents a missed opportunity.”
Young, despite his past issues with the King children, hopes that critics think about what the siblings have been through. They were children when their 39-year-old father was assassinated in Memphis, and he did not leave them much money.
“It was not only losing their father, but their grandmother was shot at the organ playing the Lord’s Prayer, in church,” said Young, who marched in Selma with King and was with him when he died. “Their uncle drowned mysteriously in his own swimming pool. . . . It’s been a really difficult road.”
But Young also is frustrated. He has reminded his own children, he said, that the family legacy is “theirs and nobody could take it away from them but it wasn’t to be monetized.”
In 2006, Young said, he helped encourage the fundraising to buy King’s papers when the four siblings — the oldest, Yolanda, died in 2007 — announced they planned to sell them at Sotheby’s. Then-Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin raised $32 million to buy the papers and place them at King’s alma mater, Morehouse College.
“I would have thought that would have been more than enough for four people to live on,” Young said. “But they spent their money suing each other about I don’t know what.”
This reputation for being difficult and litigious is one reason why museum leaders did not expect much from the King estate.
“I think I had low expectations,” said Spencer Crew, a guest curator and former director of the National Museum of American History. “That came from having been at the Museum of American History and having curators there who, even with good relationships, couldn’t exact things from them.”
Clayborne Carson, the Stanford University professor selected by Coretta Scott King to edit her husband’s papers, said that the challenges of working with the siblings are no secret.
“They’ve made clear that they’re not going to just give away his legacy, so I just think realistically you have to move on,” he said. “Yes, it would be nice if they simply donated what they had inherited from their father but I’m not sure how many people put in the same situation would. If your father was Frank Lloyd Wright and you inherited one of his famous homes and somebody said you should donate it to the public because it’s an historic structure, you would say no. It just happens with King there is a sense that we all own him.”
Jones, of the King estate, said the family has not been reluctant to make loans. He points to an exhibit at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which includes the suit King wore when he met with President Lyndon B. Johnson.
“It’s extraordinary that anyone would make a claim that the family has been difficult regarding borrowing items of memorabilia when, in fact, the majority of memorabilia has been on loan,” Jones said.
Deborah Richardson, executive vice president of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, said she does not believe the lack of major King material will diminish the new museum. The museum’s purpose, she said, is much wider in scope, meant to cover the entire range of the African American experience.
“To me, that’s so much bigger and so much more important,” she said. “Dr. King, if you look at the whole arc of our experience, thousands of years before there were records of Western society, Dr. King and his work is just a blip.”
Source: Museums Washington Post
When LSU football loses, especially when it loses games it shouldn’t, judges across the state dish out harsher sentences to juvenile offenders, most notably black boys and girls.
In a January study by LSU researchers Ozkan Eren and Naci Mocan, the pair revealed data on their university’s football team, specifically the differences between when LSU football wins or loses, over a span from 1996 to 2012.
They found that judges who received their undergraduate or law degrees from LSU go through emotional, psychological shocks following “unexpected outcomes of football games” played by their alma mater. Moreover, they found unexpected losses increase sentencing length, the majority of which is borne on black juveniles.
So when Wisconsin upset LSU on Saturday, this could easily take place the week following, their research would suggest.
Mocan — the LSU Chair in Economics, who researches the economics of crime, health and labor — said that upon presenting his findings to folk in Baton Rouge, none were surprised. Likely, because football dominates the South and everything else is fighting to be a distant second, even a profession which is supposed to be fair and just by law.
“For people that are not familiar with college football and the intensity of it, it may come as a surprise. It all comes down to the deep connection of the state and the institution and the football team,” Mocan told SB Nation. “Here, they are indoctrinated in this culture of football.”
This research is based on juvenile offenders, first-timers from ages 10 to 17, so results aren’t complicated by any criminal histories. In Louisiana, when you commit a juvenile offense, the docket is selected and randomly appoints you with a judge.
Their research brought back 9,346 unique case records from a total of 207 judges. The average sentencing time for jail, probation, or the combination of both was 514 days for first-time offenses. The incarceration rate of these offenses is 29 percent, higher than the national average. Simple battery or disturbing the peace offenses could land a teenager behind bars for a year if they are sentenced after LSU gets upset.
Of these judges, the study finds about 47 percent graduated from LSU law school, while about one-third received their bachelor’s degree from LSU.
Among the convicted, 64 percent are black and 34 percent are white; 88 percent of the judges were white, and only 23 percent were women. The average judge age is 56, and around 73 percent of the judges are affiliated with the Democratic Party.
Upset wins and close losses by the Tigers have little to no effect on these judiciaries, the study showed, only losses. The examination suggests the effects of sentencing after these games are in no way a direct reaction to prosecutors, defense attorneys, or defendants.
Ozkan Eren and Naci Mocan This table shows the study’s findings that an unsurprising LSU loss (right side) slightly increases sentencing length, while an LSU upset loss (left side) can increase it by 33 days or more.
Yet, there is a disparity of treatment between black and white defendants. Black defendants do not receive equal protections under the quota of the law, according to the study. The impact is larger for a sentencing following an upset loss, specifically if LSU was ranked in the top 10 of the AP Top 25, like it was Saturday.
Though the harsher punishments handed down are not deliberate, the study says, they are triggered by football. By and large, it’s white men who are emotionally distraught that their football team lost, with fervor lasting days and being harnessed on mostly black children.
“We find some evidence that black defendants bear much of the burden of judges’ wrath due to this emotional shock, which hints at a negative predisposition towards black defendants,” the study reads. “This result, coupled with the fact that there are no race-related differences in the disposition length in the absence of judges’ emotional stress, is suggestive of the existence of a subtle, and previously-unnoticed, bias in sentencing.”
Mocan said there was no way to base a metric for any underlying racism in any individual judge, but that what is being imposed on black adolescents must be recognized and rectified.
Calvin Johnson, a retired Chief Judge of the Orleans Parish Criminal District Court in New Orleans, called such data “crazy.” Johnson determined that this conversation about race, football, and the Louisiana court systems wouldn’t happen if there weren’t a cause for it.
“We know race matters. We know race matters across all kinds of arenas. But it seems so striking that these judges tend to be harsher after a football loss,” Johnson said. “That’s such an indictment on my profession. It’s an indictment not only on the judiciary but also on the legal profession. It speaks to how narrowly sculpted some people are who wear the black dress.”
The impact of mood changes triggered by unexpected losses of sports teams has been documented for years.
Alex Edmans and others, in an August 2007 Journal of Finance research paper, showed a short-lived, yet significant stock market decline in countries after losses by their international soccer losses.
David Card and Gordon Dahl deduced in 2011 that unexpected NFL losses of home teams increase domestic violence rates by men in the host cities. AJ Healy found in 2010 an electoral impact following local college football games before election day, with incumbents receiving higher vote percentages in Senate, gubernatorial and presidential elections.
The ramifications of sports go to great lengths, especially during the college football season. Within the Louisiana judicial system, which is known to have unmistakable flaws in its criminal parishes, everything can change for the worse once LSU loses what should be an elementary, enjoyable concept: a Saturday afternoon of football.
“We all have narrowness. We aren’t immune to that,” Johnson said. “But when you put on the black dress, you should be able to set aside all of it, especially LSU just losing a football game. It should be on balance and objectivity, so that the person in front of us benefits what we do and society does too.”
The Seahawks’ Cliff Avril and Doug Baldwin told reporters Wednesday that they’re contemplating joining teammate Jeremy Lane and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in their national anthem protest.
In fact, Seattle’s Bobby Wagner says the team has been talking about some sort of group action before Sunday’s 4:05 p.m. ET game against the Dolphins at CenturyLink Field, the Seattle Times reported.
Although Wagner said he didn’t know if he would sit down during the anthem he said, “anything we want to do, it’s not going to be individual. It’s going to be a team thing. That’s what the world needs to see. The world needs to see people coming together versus being individuals.”
“Whatever we decide to do will be a big surprise,” Wagner said, though he wouldn’t say precisely what the team might do.
Baldwin, meanwhile, not only talked about considering joining the protest initiated by Kaepernick, but also discussed support he’s hearing for the movement.
He shared comments on his Facebook pagefrom one such supportive military member:
I have the honor of knowing some amazing people that serve and have served our country in the military. One of them, a friend that served in the Special Forces, responded to my text asking him what he thought about me kneeling during the national anthem. I thought it was appropriate to share what he had to say:
“I’d respect your passion and desire to make a statement about an incredibly important issue that we have to talk about as a nation.
I also feel like, as a white man, it’s impossible for me to say I understand what it is to experience real and widespread racism. I can’t relate to the depth and significance of those wounds. It’s not a story I’ve lived, and I’m not going to pretend I have any personal authority on the issue.
What I will say is I know racism is real. And I know it shouldn’t be. And I know that the only way I can help us get to where racism loses its power in our Nation is for me to listen, respect, and love my friends who have experienced it in their lives.
And if taking a knee during our anthem is how you share your pain with me … Then I will stand behind you while you do and lay any man down who tries to stop you.
I saw a kid take a knee during the anthem, and he put his hand on his heart too. It was powerful for me to see him do that.
Our Nation has to take this issue on. It stands between us and our becoming the Tribe we need to be, and the world needs us to be.”
On Wednesday, Baldwin told reporters: “My grandfather being in the military, it hit home for me as well. It’s the veterans that have reached out and said that’s what they fought for, that’s what they sacrificed their lives for was to give people back home under the flag, under this country, the opportunity to stand up or sit for what they believe in. So that was very heartening for me to hear that.”
Avril told reporters he also has considered taking a knee during the anthem.
“We’re thinking about it. I am,” Avril said. “I truly respect what Kaep is doing. I think some people are taking it out of context because they’re not experiencing the same thing other people are experiencing. They can’t really see it. But as a person that does see it and does see what’s really going on out here, I definitely could see me doing something about it as well.”
It’s hard to imagine a teamwide protest, especially given that some Seahawks, such as quarterback Russell Wilson, have spoken against the anthem protest.
However, Sunday’s date brings special attention to the protest on a platform that commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday said carries with it a responsibility “to have respect for our country, for our flag.”
“Even if it wasn’t September 11th, the point of the protest is to get people to think,” Baldwin said. “I think it’s very ironic to me that 15 years ago, on September 11th, one of the most devastating times in U.S. history, and after that day, we were probably one of the most unified that we’ve ever been. And today, you struggle to see the unity.”
The Book of Negroes is a miniseries based on the novel of the same name by Lawrence Hill. The six-part miniseries derives its origins from the historical document Book of Negroes and tells the story of a woman forcefully brought to South Carolina from West Africa at the time of the American Revolution. Clement Virgo and Hill collaborated on writing the miniseries, with Virgo also directing. It premiered on CBC in Canada on January 7, 2015 and on BET in the United States on February 16, 2015.
In 1750, eleven-year-old Aminata Diallo is abducted from her village in West Africa, placed in shackles and sent across the ocean to be sold into slavery on a South Carolina plantation. She falls in love and marries a fellow West African slave named Chekura but when their baby is brutally abducted and sold by jealous slave master, Robinson Appleby, Aminata vows to return one day to her homeland.
Solomon Lindo, a sympathetic indigo inspector, plucks Aminata out of Appleby’s enslavement and takes her to New York where she attempts a successful escape. Amidst the rising threat of the American War of Independence, she is recruited by Sir John Clarkson to help register names of Black British Loyalists in a ledger known as The Book of Negroes, granting them freedom and passage to Nova Scotia.
Separated from her husband, Aminata encounters more hardship in Nova Scotia when tensions flare between the White and Black communities over the scarcity of work in the Shelburne Riots. Aminata successfully petitions British abolitionists, who organize passage to Africa for 1,200 former slaves – a final voyage that will reunite her with her homeland and allow her to give voice to her life story.
As mentioned above, the novel is based on a real document, the Book of Negroes. Many of the events and some of the people are likewise based on historical research. Wikipedia has articles on many of these. The Atlantic slave trade and slavery in Africa, the Middle Passage between Africa and the Americas on slave ships, and revolts onboard such as La Amistad, are all well documented. The main character is Muslim: the history of Islam in Niger gives context to this.
When the proponents of the American Revolution, the Patriots, won the war, many of those on the other side, the Loyalists, decided to leave what had been the Thirteen Colonies, now the United States, for a new home elsewhere in British America. Tens of thousands of these refugees came through New York City, where their evacuation was processed by the British Army, leading up to Evacuation Day on 25 November 1783. The Book of Negroes was created in order to ascertain which former slaves were eligible to leave; it was assembled by Samuel Birch, the namesake of Birchtown, Nova Scotia, under the direction of Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester. (For more background, see Dunmore’s Proclamation, a 1775 promise by the royal governor of the British Colony of Virginia to grant emancipation (freedom) to slaves who left revolutionary masters.)
Aminata’s first owner, Appleby, is based on a business partner of Henry Laurens in one of the largest slave trading companies. Solomon Lindo, the Jewish indigo inspector, was an ancestor of Chris Blackwell (born 1937), the British-Jamaican founder of Island Records. “Daddy Moses” was Moses Wilkinson. One of Aminata’s supporters in New York Town is Samuel Fraunces, owner of the Fraunces Tavern.
The naval officer who helped the community in Nova Scotia was John Clarkson, younger brother of the more famous Thomas, one of the central figures in the abolition of slavery in England and the British Empire. Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, along with other members of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, had incorporated the Sierra Leone Company, to resettle some of the Black Nova Scotians; Lieutenant Clarkson’s charge was to find volunteers. One of the Black Loyalist leaders he worked with was Thomas Peters; together they gathered a group of close to 1,200 who wanted to leave for better opportunities in Sierra Leone. After a harrowing transatlantic passage, the flotilla of 15 ships arrived in March 1792. This group, who became known as the Nova Scotian Settlers, established Freetown, the capital city.
Aminata’s journey to London and her biography have precedents in the life stories of men such as Ignatius Sancho and Olaudah Equiano. Her daughter’s time there as a domestic worker fits into the history of the Black Poor.
The title of the series and the novel is derived from an historical document which records names and descriptions of 3,000 African-American slaves who escaped to the British lines during the American Revolution and were evacuated by the British by ship to points in Nova Scotia as freed men. Clement Virgo and series producer Damon D’Oliveira purchased the rights to Hill’s novel in 2009 and began work on a feature film script. CBC and BET came on board in 2010 to develop the feature script into a six-part miniseries.
The international co-production began shooting in February 2014 in Cape Town, South Africa. Filming also took place in various locations around Nova Scotia, Canada. This included the Fortress of Louisbourg portraying 18th century New York City and Canvas Town, Lunenburg harbour portraying New York harbour and Shelburne’s Dock Street appearing as historic Shelburne. Filming was completed by the beginning of June 2014.
Prior to its television debut, the series had special cinematic screenings at the Marché International des Programmes de Communication and the Canadian International Television Festival.