“By sharing those images and stories of people who have passed, we are celebrating our ancestors and introducing them to new people,” Thomas Allen Harris told a St. Louis audience in 2014 during a presentation of his Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow.
It was out of this concept that “Family Pictures USA” was born. The documentary mini-series that uses vintage photos to celebrate the past and connect history with the present debuts on PBS on August 12.
Harris visited dozens of cities across the United States creating shared experiences of familial pride that made for compelling content for “Family Pictures USA,” which showcases families in Detroit, North Carolina and Florida.
His visit to St. Louis with the similarly formatted Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow, which provided the blueprint for the upcoming three-part miniseries, left an impression on everyone who attended the event nearly five years ago.
Keith Tyrone Williams sat near the front of the rows of audience chairs at the Nine Network studios holding a picture close to his chest. The photograph, a portrait of a young African American woman who appeared to be in her twenties, looked to be more than 100 years old.
As he sat through the program presented by Thomas Allen Harris, the Digital Diaspora Family Reunion Roadshow, Williams couldn’t wait to tell the story behind the photo.
He listened intently as presenters discussed the rich history behind the photos they displayed. Some of the images stretched back several generations.
When Harris asked for participation from the audience – who were encouraged to bring family photographs of their own – Williams leapt from his seat to share the story of the woman whose dignified pose captured the attention of everyone who saw it.
He beamed with family pride as he spoke of his great aunt Hannah Alice Bomar. He couldn’t wait to tell people that the African-American woman captured in the photo, taken in 1889, was a college graduate.
“She graduated from Lane College in 1888,” Williams said.
Lane, a historically black college in Tennessee, was among the network of recently established higher learning institutions stretching across the south and southeast that provided college opportunities for African American students. When Bomar received her degree, the school was only seven years old. Less than 25 years before, she would have been deemed property by the United States Government. And yet there she was, a single generation removed from slavery with a college degree.
“When I was going through grad school recently and dealing with a lot of the challenges, I looked at her picture for inspiration,” Williams said. “I thought, ‘If she could graduate college in 1889, then I can certainly make it through this.’”
Williams told the audience that he feels like if others had the privilege of being able to learn about and draw from the historical resilience of the roots within their own family tree, the impact could be transformative.
“ We need to know our legacy,” Williams said. “ It is a strength that can carry us through life.”
“Family Pictures USA” will debut on PBS on Monday, August 12. The show airs on The Nine Network at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, August 13 and 7:30 p.m. on August 23. For local listings and/or more information, visit https://www.pbs.org/family-pictures-usa