Rediscovering history: Local documentarians explore our hidden past in PBS series

Joy Cabarrus Speakes, a plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, appears in an episode of "The Future of America's Past." Image: Field Studio Joy Cabarrus Speakes, a plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education, appears in an episode of “The Future of America’s Past.” Image: Field Studio

When Field Studio founders Hannah Ayers and Lance Warren went to cast a leading man for their historical documentary series “The Future of America’s Past,” they knew just who to put in front of the camera. Ed Ayers, who researched and taught history at the University of Virginia for 27 years before taking over as president of the University of Richmond in 2007, had the style and substance the wife-and-husband team needed to anchor their vision.

“Hannah and I have the same last name, but I don’t think it was just nepotism,” Ayers says, graciously giving his daughter, who he and his wife raised in Charlottesville, the benefit of the doubt.

“The Future of America’s Past,” specifically its pilot episode “Freedom’s Fortress,” recently was nominated for an Emmy Award through the National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. The regional honor is among a handful “presented in various area-specific ceremonies…honoring excellence in television programming,” according to the national Academy.

The Academy plans to announce its Capital Awards, in which “Freedom’s Fortress” will compete against five other films on August 8.

The younger Ayers and Warren conceived of their production company’s flagship documentary series in December 2017 as an educational vehicle, a way to breathe life into historical events by highlighting their impact on modern public policy. Their Richmond-based Field Studio soon began work on a pilot, and the team released its first series teaser in Spring 2018.

“Freedom’s Fortress” focuses on Virginia’s own Fort Monroe, a military installation that played a pivotal role in both the launch and end of slavery in British North America. The first enslaved Africans arrived at Fort Monroe in 1619, viewers learn in the pilot, and on May 27, 1861, a Fort Monroe officer gave escaping slaves refuge by making what became known as the “contraband decision.” Major General Benjamin Butler said enslaved people reaching Union lines were “contraband,” meaning they would not have to be sent back to the Confederacy.

After Butler made his decision, thousands in bondage fled to Fort Monroe. Ed Ayers, who in addition to being the University of Richmond’s ninth president until he stepped down in 2015 was also UVA’s dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and won the Bancroft Prize for distinguished writing in American history, and says not even he knew the extent of Fort Monroe’s involvement in the United States’ troubled past before talking to folks in the area.

“I knew it was the place of the contraband decision, but that’s all I really knew,” Ayers says. “I, like many people, thought the first African people had been brought to Jamestown. People don’t really know the fact that the stories intersected.”

In “Freedom’s Fortress,” as in other series episodes, the host travels around interviewing locals: the Fort Monroe site superintendent, a local archeologist, even a brewer using historical yeast. Shedding light on traditionally misunderstood or underappreciated historical events and places is what “The Future of America’s Past” is all about, Hannah Ayers says. The idea is to produce a show with familiar elements—think the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown”—while taking on public history topics that speak to weighty issues like social injustice.

“We go to places where people are inspiring stories in the way they are keeping the history alive,” Ed Ayers says. “And we’re trying to tell those stories with sensitivity and care.”

The VPM Media Corporation, which produces original television content in central Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley and works with PBS to bring the programming to national audiences, has supported “The Future of America’s Past” from the beginning. Field Studio has now completed eight episodes over two seasons, covering topics like the Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregation in schools, a New York City factory fire, and Chicago’s 1919 Red Summer race war. Almost 80 percent of PBS stations nationwide, including eight of the top 10 markets, have carried the show.

But the future’s somewhat uncertain for “The Future of America’s Past,” as the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed production on the show’s third season. Ayers says she and her husband have concepts for all four episodes, and in the meantime, they’re creating “Rapid Response” shorts tied to newsworthy events like the pandemic itself and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We’re very encouraged by the national reach of the show,” Warren says. “The past is often terribly present, and too often history is a point of contention. We hope [“The Future of America’s Past”] shows how history can be constructive.”

For Ed Ayers, who’s spent his life trying to learn and convey the stories of “people who are not like myself,” the show is an opportunity to use a medium like television—not to mention his daughter and son-in-law’s cinematic vision—to bring his work to younger and wider audiences.

“We live in history like we live in oxygen,” he says. “It is invisible, but it is constantly pushing and pulling on us and the people we love. The things of history are too often quarantined in the textbook. We’re trying to make history visible.”

Posted In:     Arts,Culture

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