The James Family Letters is a broadcast documentary film currently in Pre-Production, exploring the James clan of Connecticut – an African American family that rose from slavery, triumphed over racism, and produced a number of “firsts,” including shaping the life of bestselling writer Ann Petry. The film will be designed for television with distribution through libraries, museums, community organizations, and digital Internet streams.
The seeds for the film project began more than a century ago when the U. S. Postal Service began delivering some four hundred letters from family members addressed to Mrs. Bertha Lane, first in Hartford and then at 2 Pennywise Lane, Saybrook, Connecticut. The eldest of nine James siblings, Bertha read letters conveying miles traveled, exotic flora, isolation, and dangers on far-away shores, as well as closer to home. The letters were embellished with flourishes of penmanship and pleas for financial assistance, not untypical of an up-and- coming middle-class family at the turn of the century.
Bertha Lane cherished the letters, even as she raised her daughters, ran her household, and managed three businesses. With a trait often seen as typical “Yankee,” she preserved the letters in an old tin and passed them down to her daughter, Ann Petry, who became a prominent African-American writer during the period in which few black women published fiction. Petry’s novels, along with essays, short stories, and books for children, poignantly describe the struggles and triumphs of black people living in America.
The core of the film is presented via letters, historical documents, and archival photographs handed down through five generations of the James family and preserved by Ann Petry in old cookie tins and boxes. Interviews with prominent historians and scholars will provide context and evaluation of the themes presented. And while the film profiles one family, it is a prism through which we can view Connecticut life, community, and race relations from the post-Civil War era through the early 20th century.