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Ashley James, Elisabeth Petry, and Kathryn Golden are working on a documentary film to bring the James family’s letters to life. (Photo by Aviva Luria/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)
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An upcoming documentary that provides unique insight into race in America is centered on one of Old Saybrook’s most notable families—and it all began with a batch of old letters in a cookie tin.
Old Saybrook native and novelist Ann Petry (1908–1997) was given the tin by her mother, Bertha Ernestine James (1875–1956), who collected the letters. Decades later, Petry gave the letters to her daughter, Elisabeth.
“My grandmother [Bertha James] saved everything and her brothers and sisters traveled a lot, so there were 400 letters that she kept in this tin, which went to my mother and then to me,” Elisabeth Petry said. “They were 100 years old by the time I got them.
“I opened the tin and I could smell the sandalwood,” she continued. “One of [Bertha’s sisters] had gone to Hawaii and sent back something that had sandalwood in it and you could still smell the sandalwood, because it had been sealed up for ages, for decades.”
Petry, a longtime journalist who worked for the Middletown Press, the Record-Journal, and the Hartford Courant, went on to write a book based on these letters. Can Anything Beat White?: A Black Family’s Letters tells the story of the family headed by her great-grandparents, Willis Samuel James and Anna Houston James, both of whom began their lives enslaved. The letters span roughly 1870 through the 1920s, she explained.
“There hasn’t been that much written about the period from about the end of Reconstruction, which was 1877, up through the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s,” Petry said. “That’s exactly the period that’s covered by these letters. And then my mother took a lot of that and turned it into fiction years later.”
As it happens, Petry has a second cousin, Ashley James, who is a documentary filmmaker. James and his partner, Kathryn Golden, have a film production company in Berkeley called Searchlight Films, and their documentaries have aired on PBS, CBS, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), and the BBC.
Connecticut Public Television has “expressed a lot of interest in” this film, currently titled The James Family Letters, said James.
A Remarkable Family
Ashley James’s grandfather, Harold Edward James, was the brother of Elisabeth Petry’s grandmother, Bertha. James and Petry have kept in touch and, around five years ago, a conversation happened about turning the letters into a documentary. The shape of the film has evolved over time—it was recently decided to employ professional actors to read select letters from Bertha James Lane’s collection as well as excerpts from Ann Petry’s diary.
“The letters are very descriptive,” said Ashley James. “The art of letter writing is something [that’s] almost disappeared these days, but the narrative is just so vibrant and so alive.”
One of Bertha’s brothers, Willis (1877–1940), served in the 48th U.S. Volunteer Infantry, an all-black company, in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. He sent Bertha 25 letters during that time.
Not only are his letters a trove of information, James said, “But also the narratives from Bertha, telling of life in Old Saybrook during the time.”
“And it comes through in the letters how articulate they are,” said Petry. “Writing in complete sentences, excellent grammar, very few spelling errors. It’s just mind-boggling if you think that the generation before, their father wasn’t allowed to learn to read and write.”
“Their use of the English language, I think, is remarkable for the time,” said James. “No matter what community you’re talking about. It’s pretty amazing.”
“One of the things that keeps coming through [their story and the film]...is these were people, the matriarch and patriarch, [who] were enslaved,” Petry added. “They were born in slavery. They both got out, one in about 1850, the other during the Civil War.”
Yet several of Willis and Anna James’s children not only graduated high school, but went on to study at the Hampton Institute in Virginia—one “went to Atlanta University and studied with W.E.B. Du Bois,” Petry said.
“[T]o make that leap in that amount of time is pretty phenomenal,” she continued. “In a period when a lot of people, black or white, didn’t read or write.”
The nine James siblings grew up in a house on Winter Street in the north end of Hartford. Bertha James, the eldest, was the one who stayed in Connecticut, having dropped out of school at 16 to become a businesswoman. She married Peter Clark Lane, who purchased and ran a pharmacy at 2 Pennywise Lane in Old Saybrook; he was the first African American pharmacist in the state. Bertha James Lane ran several enterprises out of the pharmacy, including a lace and linen business.
Bertha’s sister Anna Louise James (1886–1977) moved in with the Lanes when she was a teenager, graduated from Old Saybrook High School, and attended the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy, where she was both the only African American and the only woman in her class. She returned to the pharmacy and, in the 1920s, began to run the business on her own, changing the name from Lane’s Pharmacy to James Pharmacy, making her the first black female pharmacist in the state. The pharmacy (most recently operated as an inn and a gelateria), is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Researching the Film
On a recent Monday in September, Elisabeth Petry, Ashley James, and Golden spent several hours at the Frank Stevenson Archives of the Old Saybrook Historical Society.
“The historical society has these reels of 16 mm film that go back—some of it begins in the 1930s and some of it in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Petry. “And so we’ve been looking at the digitized versions of that to see what images are available and going through some of the archives that they have.”
Fortunately for the filmmakers, Old Saybrook still has quite a few buildings that would have been standing when Bertha and Peter Lane first moved there, in 1900.
“[M]any spaces...haven’t changed much in 350 years and that makes it a little easier in terms of establishing historical perspective,” said Petry.
“It’s a photographer’s treasure trove,” said James. “Yesterday we just drove around getting...all these just wonderful, atmospheric visuals of what we imagine is what Old Saybrook was during that period.”
Footage includes “views of the Sound and the river,” James continued. “We’re bringing people alive with these visuals. It’s really a wonderful endeavor.”
“And we consider it a tribute to our amazing family,” added Petry.
Interviews with scholars will provide context and background to the letters. One is Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African-American Studies at Columbia University. Among the others who appear in the film is Connecticut State Historian Walter W. Woodward.
The film has received two grants from Connecticut Humanities and is supported by the Community Foundation of Middlesex County.
“A film like this—it’s a story of New England, but it’s a story of America, American history,” said James. “[T]here’s a real value in understanding history and how people experienced it.
“Our goal as filmmakers is to bring that history alive in a way so that you [not only] understand it intellectually, but emotionally. You can understand what these people were going through, how they experienced life in that time,” he continued.
“We make films that arguably millions of people at one time can see,” he said. “So when this film is shown on public television in New England, potentially millions of people will be able to see it. That’s our goal, really.”
The documentary is currently in pre-production, Golden explained. Moving into the production phase means, among other things, raising “a lot more money,” she said.
Those interested in making a financial contribution to assist with the film’s production can visit middlesexcountycf.org, click on “Search the Site,” and enter “James Family documentary fund.” Further information about the film, including a link to a “sneak peek,” can also be found there.
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