My History Is America's History
Family history project will solicit segments from station producers
Originally published in Current, Oct. 22, 2001
By Steve Behrens
Just as family histories are important building blocks of history, local stations’ family-history specials will provide the substance for a PBS project two years from now. Though it’s an up-from-the-grassroots project, the $1.5 million budget and coordination are coming from the top down, planned to add a TV component to a millenium project, My History Is America’s History, launched two years ago by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
If all goes as planned, local stations will have the year 2002 to produce local programs that will feed into a two-hour national special in time for Family History Month in October 2003, says Marcy Brown of Wisteria Pictures in Salt Lake City. Brown says she has a funding commitment from CPB and PBS and is seeking further aid from the NEH and the Ford Foundation. She hopes to have enough money to help support at least a dozen of the local projects.
The national project will bring together Brown, who produced the second season of the PBS genealogy series Ancestors, with first-season producer Sterling Van Wagenen, Ancestors producing station KBYU in Provo, Utah, and a new partner, Wisconsin PTV.
The Wisconsin network fits the project in three ways, Brown says. WPT has partnered successfully with the State Historical Society of Wisconsin on several historical series, it’s a parent of public TV’s National Center for Outreach, and it has long experience in coordinating local producers’ contributions to national shows.
When they hand out aid to local producers, the national producers will also provide production standards to help the local segments fit into the national production.
Families will contribute leads for many of the stories through the Internet. NEH already operates its My History Is America’s History website, www.myhistory.org, and the Ancestors site continues to draw millions of visits. Megan Smolenyak, a genealogist who developed the Ancestors site, will work on the project, according to Brown.
She wants to pick up the cause of Alex Haley, whose Roots went far beyond the stories that textbooks typically tell. The family stories may be a simple ones about grandma’s china surviving the Oregon Trail, Brown says, or they may be complex interrelated tales, looking at the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad from multiple viewpoints—an Irish engineer, a Chinese laborer, a Native American and the wife of a railroad executive. Another story could look at a soldier’s little-known effect on a battle, and then the war’s effect on the soldier’s family.
"We are all looking for who we are," Brown says. "The more we learn about our families and where they fit in history, the more we understand our own identity."
To Current's home page Earlier news: NEH release announces My History Is America's History Project, 1999. Outside links: websites for My History Is America's History project and public TV's Ancestors series.and Wisconsin Public TV's Wisconsin Stories collaboration with the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Web page posted Oct. 24, 2001
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