Saltwater Portrait

Slaves bridged Delaware waters on path to freedom

Lewes, Cape May play role in Henry Lewes Gates film
March 12, 2013
Henry Louis Gates Jr. takes a break aboard the Cape May-Lewes Ferry where a segment for an upcoming documentary was filmed. Also shown is Talleah Bridges-McMahon, film coproducer. “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” will be a six-hour PBS series. It is scheduled to air in November. BY MICHAEL PORCH – CAPE MAY-LEWES FERRY

It’s easy to forget that Delaware was a slave state. Blacks who escaped from plantations in Virginia and throughout the deep south of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, traveled the Underground Railroad.

Those who made it as far as Delaware could see land where they would be free, but they could also see an obstacle to be conquered: Delaware Bay.

“That 18 miles was the space between slavery and freedom,” Henry Louis Gates Jr. said, standing next to an upper-deck rail aboard the Cape May-Lewes Ferry.

Gates delivered the line about the 18-mile space, while shooting a documentary aboard a New Jersey-bound ferry. Looking directly into the camera’s lens, he delivers the line, and then slowly turns his head to look toward the Jersey Shore.

Gates used a December stop in Delaware to film a segment of a documentary illustrating how slaves used waterways that were part of the Underground Railroad.

Gates, an Alphonse Fletcher University professor at Harvard University, is also director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research.

He and a film crew from Ark Media, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based documentary film company, are shooting  “The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” a six-hour PBS series.

“It’s the first full history of African-American people ever done. From slavery and its origin in West Africa, to the re-election of President Barrack Obama,” Gates said. The series is scheduled to begin in November and will air in one-hour segments once a week.

“Most people don’t know that slaves escaped not only by land and rail but also by water. It was only 18 miles from the slave state of Delaware to the free state of New Jersey. So close, but so far away,” Gates said, during a break in filming.

The documentary will highlight the role rivers, bays and seacoasts played in African-American history.

“There were always black sailors. The whaling industry was one of the first integrated industries in the history of the United States. Only a lunatic would get on a whaling boat because the mortality rate was so high,” Gates said.

A few days before the ferry shoot, Gates and the film crew were on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, working on the Harriet Tubman story. “We filmed near Frederick Douglass’s birthplace and the actual route where Harriet Tubman started,” Gates said.

They also filmed Odessa’s Corbit-Sharp House, an Underground Railroad safe house.

“It’s very exciting. I’m bringing in scholars. We filmed with the world’s expert on Harriet Tubman, professor Kate Larson who is at Simmons College. I’m bringing the experts to the locale and filming them there,” Gates said. Simmons College is an all- women’s undergraduate school in Boston.

The documentary will include interviews with Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. In 1963, Lewis was known as one of the top six people in America’s civil rights movement. In the documentary, Gates said, Lewis would talk about the Edmund Pettus Bridge incident in Selma, Ala.  Lewis was there on March 7, 1965, known as Bloody Sunday, when police armed with clubs attacked and beat nonviolent civil rights marchers as they crossed Pettus Bridge.

Retired U.S. Army four-star general and former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell will also appear to talk about the history of blacks in the military.

Ferry passengers notice the film crew and two women sitting near Gates during the interview tell him how much they enjoy his work.

Gates is affable, and he strikes up a conversation with ease. He asks the women what they do for a living; one is a retired teacher, the other is a working teacher. “This country really needs good teachers,” he tells them.

“Now, you went to Oxford?” one woman says to Gates.

“No, I went to the other one,” he said, without naming the other one, University of Cambridge, where he earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in English literature. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English language and literature from Yale University.

Gates has filmed 13 documentaries; most have aired on PBS. “It’s fun. It’s not my day job; it’s an avocation; a second career,” he said, as the ferry neared his next stop along the Underground Railroad.