Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Underground Rail Story Is Showcased on Cable

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Underground Rail Story Is Showcased on Cable

Article excerpt

FRIEND of a friend.

The poignant phrase is used by runaway slaves to identify those willing to help them flee the South in "Race to Freedom: The Underground Railroad," a Family Channel movie premiering Saturday.

For actor-producer Tim Reid, it was a struggle to get the project made: Television is no friend to blacks or their history, he says, even when it's as compelling as the 19th century freedom railroad.

"I took it to every network in existence, every cable company that I thought would possibly air this, and everybody turned me down, save Family Channel," recounts Reid.

"You get these consistently polite reasons to reject anything of substance that deals with the heritage or true nature of black Americans.

"In this case, they said, `Well, we've done that with `Roots.' They think `Roots' is the quintessential story of black America . . . (television's attitude is) `We've done our black history story.' "

Even the Family Channel wavered until Reid struck up a partnership with a Canadian company, Atlantis Films Limited, which was planning a similar movie.

"Race to Freedom," starring Courtney Vance, Janet Bailey, Dawnn Lewis and Glynn Turman, will be seen on both the Family Channel and Black Entertainment Television at 7 tonight and will be repeated Feb. 20 and 27 on the Family Channel.

The movie chronicles the desperate flight of four slaves from a plantation in North Carolina, and the help they get from courageous blacks and whites who made up the so-called railroad.

Schoolbooks tell us there was no train, of course, and no set route to freedom out of the South. But the terminology was all railroad-flavored - fugitives were passengers, the benefactors were conductors, and the houses and barns that provided shelter along the way were known as stations.

"Race to Freedom" is set in 1850, the year Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. The act made it illegal to aid or abet an escaped slave, even in non-slave states, under risk of fine or imprisonment.

Sympathetic Canadians offered their country as a haven, and it became the final "station" of the railroad for as many as 40,000 people.

But for every black who managed to escape, an equal number are believed to have been captured and either returned to their owners or killed in exchange for bounty. …

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