Friday, April 25, 2008
Local documentary hopes to rewrite South Carolina history
I remember learning about Harriet Tubman from my elementary school history textbook. I was taught that she was a slave that had escaped and became a â€œConductorâ€ for the Underground Railroad freeing thousands of slaves. The whole book dedicated maybe two paragraphs to her.
Two South Carolinians are looking to change that. Duff Bruce and Michael Oâ€™ McCarthy are the project creators and executive producers of a fascinating documentary in the making about Tubman. Bruce, co-owner of the independent bookstore, The Open Book, in Greenville, met Michael Oâ€™McCarthyâ€”a noted local film producer and author of fiction and poetryâ€”as he perused the aisles of his bookstore. They began talking about different books they had read, their backgrounds and the store.
â€œI was talking to Duff,â€ says Oâ€™McCarthy, â€œand I had mentioned my background in film ...and then he disappeared as he is wont to do. He had gone off in the back and a few minutes later he came running back with this book by Kate Larson and asked me if I knew anything about Harriet Tubman. I replied the usual stuff, about the her being called Moses and the Underground Railroad.â€
Duff then gave him the book and explained about Harriet Tubman being in South Carolina. As Michael put it, Duff started with, â€œI have always had this dream.â€ Michael thought jokingly maybe he was channeling Martin Luther King but soon realized Duff did have a dream, an intriguing dream. Thus, the documentary, The Commander: Harriet Tubman and the Combahee River Raid was born.
Duff and Michael have worked nearly three years, truly a labor of love, to get to a point where the documentary is becoming more of a reality. They have just received a South Carolina Humanities Grant, which has enabled them to begin infield research in the Lowcountry. They have a great team including an Emmy-winning producer and an awardâ€“winning director alongside writers, research assistants and humanities scholars.
The documentary focuses on a Union army raid led by Tubman during the Civil War up our very own Combahee River. The completion of the raid resulted in the freeing of over 700 slaves and the confiscation and destruction of millions of dollars in supplies and materials destined for the Confederate Army.
When asked why the Combahee River raid story should be told and what would qualify the two of them to tell it, Duff and Michael showed their true humanity and passion in giving this story life. Duff said he was simply struck by the fact that Harriet Tubman was in South Carolina; he had never been taught that.
â€œThe South portrayed slavery as a genteel occurrence, while the North portrayed it as hell on earth,â€ Duff said, â€œbut the truth sometimes is in between. Harriet Tubman took a very severe stance, she wanted black men to be freed and be equal in the Union army from the get go. Of course, they werenâ€™t. We canâ€™t paint a â€˜Gone with the Windâ€™ kind of story. I think we are far enough away from the war now that we can appreciate the difference in the experience.â€
They are basing the documentary on a biography written by Kate Larson titled Bound for the Promise Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. This was the book that Duff had shown Michael. Michael pointed out that there is a mystery about Harriet Tubman. Some scholars that they have spoken with disagree on the details of the raid and some even say she was not actually the leader. But the documentary takes issue with that.
â€œShe worked to conceive this raid with Col. James Montgomery, they went up the Combahee River with three Union gunboats with a black male regiment, they freed over 700 slaves and burnt millions of dollars of goods and supplies that would have gone to the Confederate cause. The end result of that, in my opinion, is they proved a number of things. First of all that slaves would leave the plantation en masse and rise up against their master, that they would not do this was a myth that had been created by slave owners. Secondly, that black troops would join the Union, that they could fight and that they would fight victoriously. Thirdly that this effort was commanded by a femaleâ€”a black femaleâ€”had to psychologically drive a stake in the heart of the racism and male supremacy that existed in the heart of the Confederacy. In my opinion, if this was not a military turning point in the war, it was certainly a psychological one.â€
An irony that Duff and Michael pointed out was that when Harriet Tubman tried to get her military pension she was denied several times. This happened in spite of the fact that Col. James Montgomery backed her, saying, â€œI was there with her. She was shot at, I was shot at.â€
Duff also pointed out what a tragic error the federal government made in abandoning the slaves after freeing them. â€œThey didnâ€™t protect the rights of these people,â€ he says. â€œThey just freed them.â€
Both Duff and Michael hope to change how the history of South Carolina is viewed. â€œI want people to know this happened in this particular state, in South Carolina,â€ Duff says. â€œThe fact that Tubman is one of the most famous women of her time and was in the state for over a year, I think this is interesting and elatingâ€¦ the legislatures get upset about Tillmanâ€™s legacy as if it is a deep dark secret. This is not a deep dark secret. The Tubman story should be told.â€
They believe the Combahee River raid commanded by Harriet Tubman should be taught in schools. â€œThe exploration and uncovering of history, especially about African Americans is essential to the well being of a person,â€ Michael says. â€œIt is difficult to know where you are going if you do not know where you come from. In this case with Harriet Tubman you have an extraordinary role model especially for African American women, for any American woman. I do not think that we can heal, nor can we amend, unless we feel the wounds of the past through exploration.â€
Duff Bruce and Michael Oâ€™McCarthy recognize that slavery is not just the history of African Americans but the history, although shameful and tragic, of all Americans.