When Karyn Parsons was a kid, she “couldn’t stand history.”
The text in books was small and hard to read. The black and white photos were from times “far, far away.” And the dates. You always had to memorize dates.
“It was always very dry and serious,” Parsons said. “No one ever explained how it related to me.”
So when Parsons, who is best known for playing Hilary Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” became pregnant with her first child, she started thinking about her responsibility as a parent. What were schools teaching kids? What parts of American history were being told?
About two years after her daughter was born, Parsons launched Sweet Blackberry, an organization dedicated to telling untold stories about African Americans in history. In 2005, she researched, wrote and produced “The Journey of Henry Box Brown,” an animated film that told the triumphant and harrowing story of an enslaved man who shipped himself from Richmond, Va., to freedom in Philadelphia.
A few years later, she released “Garrett’s Gift,” which focused on Garrett Morgan, a black inventor who created the traffic signal and safety hoods for firefighters. By 2015, Sweet Blackberry had become a nonprofit, and Parsons funded “Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story” through a Kickstarter campaign. The movie tells the story of the first African American ballerina in the U.S. to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Now, all three films are available on Netflix.
Finding financial support for the films is nerve-racking, but Parsons is passionate about getting these lesser known stories in front of kids and their teachers. She’s currently at work on another Kickstarter to tell the story of Bessie Coleman, who was the first African American to get an international pilot’s license.
“There has been a lot of goodwill surrounding Sweet Blackberry,” Parsons said. “People recognize its value.”
Growing up, Parsons had never heard of Henry Brown or Garrett Morgan. It wasn’t until her 20s, when she was on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” that she began to explore black historical figures more. Her mother, a librarian at the Black Resource Center in Los Angeles, would find interesting stories and relay them to her daughter.
“One day she told me the story of Henry Box Brown,” Parsons recalled, noting that it seemed like an obvious story for children. “I wanted to write a book about it, so I made notes, but then I would forget about it and run back to my life on ‘Fresh Prince.’”
Years later, when she finally started writing the script, Parsons realized the story she thought had so many kid-friendly elements — a man successfully traveling 27 hours in a box — was a loaded tale full of discrimination and separation.
“I had to recount it for children in a way that’s palatable for them so they can engage and understand it,” she said.
When Parsons goes to classrooms to screen the film, children ask questions like, “Was Henry ever reunited with his family?”
“You don’t want to sugarcoat too much, but you also want to bring the story to where they are,” Parsons explained. “You don’t want to terrify them, but you also want to give them the history as much as you can on a real note. The truth is that no, he never saw his family again. I’m heartbroken by how many children catch that piece.”
Talking about slavery can be a hard topic to explain to kids, said Amy Peckham, an early childhood education teacher at Friends’ Academy in North Dartmouth, Mass. When she screened “The Journey of Henry Box Brown,” she let her three- and four-year-old students draw their own conclusions.
“Freedom isn’t until all the persons are free,” one student responded. Another reacted by saying, “You can’t buy guys at the store. They would miss their mom and dad and family.”
“The children felt the injustice, but weren’t overwhelmed,” Peckham said.
When Peckham screened “Dancing in the Light,” some kids were horrified that the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the Philharmonic told Janet Collins she would need to paint her face white to perform.
“If I was a ballet dancer I would just throw all the white paint in the garbage,” a child said after viewing the film. Collins did.
Parsons hopes Bessie Coleman will equally inspire students. Although Coleman is somewhat well-known, Parsons didn’t learn about the groundbreaking aviator until she was an adult acting in the play “Birdgirl,” written by Anne Harris.
Coleman decided she wanted to fly as pilots were making headlines throughout World War I. When she applied to aviation schools in the U.S., no one would admit her.
“For a black woman in the early ’20s to say, ‘I’m gonna do that,’ is laughable,” Parsons said. “Think about how difficult things were for black women in the U.S.”
Determined, Coleman sought advice from Robert S. Abbott, an editor and publisher in Chicago. Abbott suggested she go to France, where they were more accepting of black people and women. Coleman quickly learned French and began taking flying lessons in France at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudron et Le Crotoy.
After she earned her pilot’s license, one of Coleman’s goals was to open a flight school for African Americans in the U.S. She raised money through public speaking engagements and by performing stunts in the air. Coleman ultimately died during a flight show in 1926, but her legacy lives on.
Parsons hopes kids can learn from the stories Sweet Blackberry highlights, which include moments of great hardship.