Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is perhaps best known for his accomplishments on the basketball court. But when he was a middle school student, Abdul-Jabbar thought the contributions of Black Americans went underrepresented in the classroom — and now, he’s hoping to rectify that with a new documentary.
“We aren’t taught in schools about Black soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary and Civil wars in defense of their country, a country who continued to mistreat them when the wars were over,” the NBA Hall of Famer and bestselling author told HuffPost. “Yet, even that did not dim the intensity of their patriotism. Now we have a chance to set the record straight and Black children can take pride in their heritage.”
“Black Patriots: Heroes of the Civil War,” a one-hour documentary set to premiere Feb. 21 on the History Channel, drops viewers into the heart of the Civil War and takes a comprehensive look at the lives of relatively unknown heroes. Abdul-Jabbar narrated the film and executive produced it alongside Deborah Morales of Iconomy Multi-Media & Entertainment.
The documentary highlights figures such as Union spy Mary Richards, who infiltrated the Confederate White House, and Robert Smalls, a slave who daringly stole a Confederate steamboat and escaped to freedom. It shows how more well-known figures like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass played a significant role in the Civil War. Douglass, for example, would go on to convince then-President Abraham Lincoln that Black Americans should serve in the Union forces.
The film also emphasizes how Black Americans made a conscious effort to fight for their own liberation as soldiers in the Union army. Historians Keisha N. Blain, John Stauffer, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Christy S. Coleman and others offer insight into the war, which took place from 1861 to 1865.
“The Civil War wasn’t just fought over Black Americans, it was also fought by them,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “This documentary chronicles the heroic contributions of courageous African American men and women who helped reshape our nation.”
The History Channel has previously teamed up with the NBA Hall of Famer, a prominent historian in his own right. He narrated and appeared in the documentaries “Fight the Power: The Movements That Changed America” and “Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution,” which was nominated for an Emmy.
It’s impossible to squeeze all of the contributions that Black Americans made during the Civil War into a single hour. But Abdul-Jabbar hopes viewers will learn something new.
“There are a lot of worthy people who we’ve had to leave out. But we tried to give a thorough overview and hopefully viewers will see the Civil War in a new, more accurate light,” he said.
The documentary is timely as fights over critical race theory and school book bans intensify across the country. A Republican-backed bill purporting to ban “critical race theory” in schools passed in Mississippi’s Senate, joining several states in attempts to shut down the framework. A historic book-banning effort led by conservatives is underway in school districts across at least 30 states. But Abdul-Jabbar believes history should be shared widely, not erased.
“We’re still trying to convince Americans — white and Black — that African Americans have contributed significantly to our freedom and our culture,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “The fact that history books, teachers, television and movies have largely ignored Blacks is why we need shows like this.”
“The proof of our deliberate efforts to exclude Blacks from American history is evident in the fact that most people watching this documentary will never have heard of any of these Black heroes except for Harriet Tubman,” he added. “Our history shouldn’t be a surprise.”