Henry Louis Gates Gets it Right…With a Little Help

Last year I was contacted by researchers at PBS’s Finding Your Roots to help out with interpreting a document for a future episode. I was unaware of who the subject was until last night. Turned out the subject was filmmaker Kasi Lemmons. The episode centered largely around a post-Civil War newspaper article about a Confederate body servant or camp slave in Mississippi by the name of Primus Lemons.

I was happy to help out given my concerns about Gates’s many statements over the years in support of the Black Confederate myth. I’ve written extensively about it on this blog as well as in my book, Searching for Black Confederates. This was an opportunity to reach a large viewing public and correct the historical record.

I couldn’t be more pleased with the final result. The segment of the episode that deals with Primus begins at the 25:00 minute mark. The script largely follows my own work on this subject and at times the language is pretty much word for word from what I shared in email exchanges and phone conversations with the show’s researchers.

What I am most pleased about is their inclusion of my suggestions about how to interpret the newspaper article itself. There is nothing surprising about it. The story about Primus which appeared in 1879 was an opportunity to highlight a formerly enslaved man who remained loyal to his former master and the Confederacy. Primus thrived as a farmer with the assistance of his former master, but most importantly, the article makes it clear that Primus knew his place in society. As I argue in the book, these feature stories helped to reinforce the Lost Cause as well as the racial hierarchy of the postwar South.

I want to thank Dr. Gates and his team of researchers for giving me the opportunity to help Kasi Lemmons better understand her own family’s stories and to help correct a “persistent myth” about the Civil War and the Confederacy.

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9 comments… add one
  • Msb Feb 18, 2021 @ 0:22

    Glad to hear this good news. Thanks for persisting.

  • Frank "Skip" Shaffer Feb 17, 2021 @ 9:42

    My peak moment with the Professor was my unanswered letter to him with a hide-a-key device, included as a gift, which would have saved us that inane White House beer-moment featuring a cop, an erstwhile suspect and President Obama. My correspondence was not an admonishment, but rather a simple solution should he forget the house key ever again. That little thing saved me from embarrassment at least once. And, I can write here, as I did to the Professor, that if men are looking in my windows at home in my absence, I hope my neighbors would call law enforcement. Whoever, they are.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2021 @ 10:47

      I am not sure what this has to do with the post, but OK.

      • Frank "Skip" Shaffer Feb 17, 2021 @ 11:24

        Thanks for posting it. What I wrote was about your protagonist, H.L.G., the man. But the event was a long time ago. It has always been interesting to me to see how the people we read, study and act, ‘at home’ :), or off stage, when the cameras are off. Not his shining hour.

        • Matt McKeon Feb 17, 2021 @ 20:45

          To summarize your two posts: that cop taught that uppity negro some manners. Gates may think he’s some sort of fancy pants college professor in his own home, but he knows his place now.

          • Frank "Skip" Shaffer Feb 18, 2021 @ 2:11

            You speak for yourself, I presume. The problem with the professor occurred outside of his home. You project on me, the cop and Gates.

            • mattmckeon Feb 18, 2021 @ 12:03

              Skip, I speak fluent dog whistle.

  • Bryan Cheeseboro Feb 17, 2021 @ 4:21

    Interesting that Gates basically conceded to you, after so much disagreement you’ve had with his understanding of history. I’ve read numerous accounts of body servants/camp servants attached to the Confederacy, but they are never referred to as soldiers. I guess the thing with Gates is that he hasn’t done as much research on this as you have.

    • Kevin Levin Feb 17, 2021 @ 4:26

      Hi Bryan,

      Nice to hear from you. I think this has more to do with the hard work put in by the researchers as opposed to Professor Gates. He must have known that I was involved because the last script that I read included my name, which I thought was strange given that the show usually doesn’t reference the names of historians consulted. In the end I am just relieved that they got it right.

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