This week on In Black America, producer and host John L. Hanson, Jr. concludes his conversation with Sean Durant, producer and director of Gina’s Journey: The Search for William Grimes, and Regina A. Mason, author of The Life of William Grimes, The Runaway Slave.
[00:00:15] From the University of Texas at Austin, KUT Radio. This is In Black America.
Virginia Mason [00:00:23] The year was 2000 when my mother and I took a trip back to King George County, Virginia, where William Grimes was born, and the estate. Eagle’s Nest still stands. And that was the home of Benjamin Grimes. And I wanted to I in fact, I was invited to go back and to tour the grounds with the present day owner who had no affiliation with the family. By the way, Eagle’s Nest remained in the Grimes and Fitzhugh family for 300 years before it sold in 1974, the year I began high school.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:01:05] Virginia Mason, International speaker, executive producer and author of Life of William Grimes The Runaway Slave, published by Oxford University Press. The Life of William Grimes. The Runaway Slave is the first fugitive slave narrative in American history because Grimes wrote and published this narrative on his own without deference to white energy, his publisher or sponsors. His life in intimacy, candor and no holds barred realism unparalleled in the famous antebellum slave narratives during that time. Mason In the same vein as the late Alex Haley and her stories about her great great great grandfather, William Grimes, following clues on my aunt Katherine she and bonked on a 15 year journey. She would later partner with William Andrews to publish a new edition of his pioneering work in 2017, a documentaries made combining two stories. Mason’s journey to discover and trace the steps of our ancestor and Grimes story as a slave and his thirst for freedom. I’m Daniel Henderson, Jr. And welcome to another edition of In Black America. On this week’s program, Gina’s Journey The Search for William Grimes, But Sean Durant and Regina Mason, Part two. In Black America.
Virginia Mason [00:02:25] Once I started digging into this story and realizing that no other scholars had really looked at it. In fact, when I went looking for any body of research that was done on William Grimes, it was so inaccurate. And there were historians who just took a liberty to to write about this man, having not done any research whatsoever. And then I came across the work of Dr. William Andrews, a scholar from you, and C, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Right. This extraordinary expert on early African American autobiography. I came across his book to tell a free story, and he studies the slave narratives. And included in his body of work, which is sort of like the Scholars Bible today. He wrote about William Grimes.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:03:26] Regina E. Mason is a remarkable woman. She spent 15 years of her life researching the life of a great, great, great grandfather, William Grimes. With nothing to go on but the connection to the Underground Railroad. She spent countless hours in libraries, reading books, looking at microfilm and census records. Grimes was ten years old when he was all the way from the eyes of a grieving mother to a far off plantation who grew up friendless and motherless with apparently no surrogate slave, family or loved ones to embrace him. No one even to look after him. Grimes was the first person to go through slavery in the South and write about it. This was the first time Southern slavery exposed from the perspective of one who had lived it. And he was the first author to write about the harsh realities of the North, despite the narrative of his being a Freedomland. Recently In Black America, I spoke with Sean Durant, the producer of Gina’s Journey, the Search for William Grimes and Regina mason. On today’s program, we conclude our conversation.
Speaker 4 [00:04:31] And so my co-producer contacted his agent, his agency, and they sent it over. And to my astonishment, he came back and was like, I’ll do it. And it was more than a reasonable rate and which also made a saint. And the next thing you know, I was out in in Hollywood, in Melrose, actually, at his recording studio and directing Keith David in the booth, which was mind blowing, to say the least. And he was astonished to see, you know, me and, you know, given my age and what I’d done and being an African-American male to be directing this film. So that really made him happy when he saw that he just was was really blown away with it. But he blessed the project, came in. He did the most amazing work on it, and it really just elevated Gina’s story and Grimes story to a whole new level. So we will be entirely thankful to him for that. And every once in a while I do have talks with him still, and he’s just a really good person. And I think he’s a studier of history. He’s very big in the voiceover world. He’s an Emmy Award winning voice actor who’s done a ton of Ken Burns documentaries, right? So he was really into it and this is his thing. So I think he really enjoyed working on this project and we were better for it.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:05:50] Yeah, I. Matt Mason Honestly, this was labor intense. This is way before Google and everything else. So what gave you that consistent drive to work wanting to complete this project?
Virginia Mason [00:06:05] William Grimes himself, You know, when you read his narrative, all that he endured in life, the cruelty, the abuse, right at every turn, he was reminded that he was nothing, but he never bought into the status quo. In fact, he defied the status quo at every turn. Just the fact that he had the notion that he was capable of writing his own story without any assistance from white people speaks to who he was and how self-assured he was. So his example of perseverance and endurance gave me the will to to just carry on and see this this project to to the end. And I’m speaking of the book project. And I do have to say this. Once I started digging into this story and realizing that no other scholars had really looked at it. In fact, when I went looking for any body of research that was done on William Grimes, it was so inaccurate. And there were his. Arias, who just took a liberty to to write about this man having not done any research whatsoever. And then I came across the work of Dr. William Andrews, scholar from you and see you and see Chapel Hill. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Right. This extraordinary expert on early African American autobiography. I came across his book to tell a free story. And he studies the slave narratives. And included in his body of work, which is sort of like the scholar’s Bible today. He wrote about William Grimes. Not a whole lot more than I had found those about four pages of work. And I needed to make sense of that genre of literature that I really knew nothing about. So I reached out to him and he at the time was the only living scholar who that who I could talk to. And we sort of built a relationship. Every now and then I would send him information about what I found of William Grimes. And he one day wrote me back and he said, Look, the work you’ve done has to be preserved in some fashion or another. And then he broached the idea of partnering to do a book, because I knew that Bill knew that I, I wanted to bring this story to light this new scholarship that had never been done before on William Grimes. And he definitely was the right person because obviously he had studied Grimes. He had written about Grimes. And there was really no one else that I could associate myself with. And he was the man when it came to early African-American autobiography. And so we partnered and we developed what we call or what has been the authoritative edition of The Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:09:41] What was it like your feelings when you you read his narrative and then understood that your great great grandfather was just not an ordinary slave?
Virginia Mason [00:09:56] Well, I want to say this. William Grimes was an ordinary man who did an extraordinary thing. I want people to realize we may not have those narratives out there. We may not be able to to we can may be able to find our ancestor who had been enslaved on a in a plantation records or slave inventories. And all you see are names. Sadly, those voices, we will never know their voice or their humanity because the story doesn’t exist, Right? So to find this first person account of slavery and by the way, William Grimes is the first person of color to go through slavery in the South and write about it. So for the first time, we got to hear about Southern slavery from the perspective of the slave and not from the slave owner himself. So it’s a different kind of story and it’s more authentic and true in terms of the experience. So to recover this and then associate myself to this narrative, I realize that all of his virtues are inside of me. So when you say William Grimes was not the ordinary slave, he definitely speaks for those who didn’t have a voice. And I believe that none of the slaves bought into the enslaved narrative that was supposed to be their destination and ultimately was their destination. Or, yes, I believe that they all had that will to be free and and in their own circumstances, they asserted whatever power they had in a rebellious way. And so to know, though, that William Grimes was able to make it out of slavery and to tell his story is huge. It is. It’s just incredibly empowering and. I realized again that his virtues exist in me, and he was my example every step of the way. When I wanted to give up, when I was faced with all kinds of closed doors, I realized that he faced those same issues and he was told no. Over and over again. But he found a way to get it done. And so I, I it brings me great pride that this enslaved man who never bought into the status quo live within me. And so, you know, Shawn and I talk about this all the time because to get this film done was also it was a huge challenge. Money was always an issue. And we found ways and I can understand how he, you know, had to fill in pieces and so forth to get the project done. But we always had William Grimes at our back, and he was always the the example that we aimed for because we knew if he was capable of not only getting writing in his book, but finding a way to to to sell his book and to register with the state of Connecticut, we realized that it was within us to get our projects done as well.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:13:45] Whatever you all were going through really wasn’t that difficult.
Virginia Mason [00:13:49] Absolutely.
Speaker 4 [00:13:50] Absolutely.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:13:51] What do you want readers and just ask you first the same question and also you, Mr. Duran. What do you want readers to come away from the book and also the movie?
Speaker 4 [00:14:02] Well, I would say, you know, in Jena can speak even deeper on her story in the movie and the book. But for me, particularly with the movie, you know, I want them to to get from the movie, to go get the book to read about the details of William Grimes’s life and his story, and to read about Jena’s story, which is in the afterword of the book. So really, the movie is just the beginning of their journey of understanding this journey. So what I want them to get out of the movie is to go see the movie and understand that we all have a story. We all can tell our story, whether it be from writing a book, doing a movie, passing it down to your children as she passed it down to her daughters. But just getting out there and discover now we have, you know, Ancestry.com and T3 in me, but I want them to watch the movie and understand that history is important. Our stories are important. And in finding the content that’s meaningful out there and spreading it, we worked long and hard and Jena put in a lot of time to create and get this book done. And then she, you know, unselfishly went on another ten years to make the film and to get it out to a wide audience. We want people to find it. Go to our Web site at Gina’s journey dot com, and then go to Amazon Prime and watch the movie and, you know, obviously tell a thousand of their best friends to watch it because we really think that is an important story. We think that, you know, William Grimes is an important historical figure that needs to be in the history books. I think it’s important because I want I always wanted to make film with strong female leads. I got that from James Cameron, who idolize as a director and a producer. And I think Regina mason is that. And I think that it’s important for people to see that we can not only make content about African-American people or just Americans in American history, but for this new movement with women that they can be strong, they can stand up, they can get their own history, they can do the things that everybody else in men can do, and they can share those stories with their children and in particularly their daughters. We want people to watch the film and realize they can make a movie about or go further than that. They can actually become president of the United States, you know, after Michelle does or her daughter. So, you know, that’s what I want people to get out of the film, that there is no limitations. Now, the old rules of Hollywood, you can’t make a film without us are gone. The streaming services have changed all of that. Anybody We made this film from script to screen to stream and and we did it all on our own, financed by us. My wife was the executive producer, another strong, powerful Black women along with Regina mason, to show that we can take control of our stories and we can can can guide other people to and and get them out there. So I’m hoping that people will have, you know, a good response to the film. It encouraged them to go learn about history, learn about their past, whether it’s through DNA or other methods, but more importantly. Go out and tell your own story. Tell your own story. So please go watch Gina’s journey. The search for William Grimes on Amazon Prime and definitely spread the word.
Virginia Mason [00:17:34] Mason Yes, I would like the audience or people to take away from this film a couple things. First of all and foremost, and it’s by William Grimes’s example is to give yourself permission, and that is now a virtue I live by. MM If we sat around and waited for the scholars, the academics, the, the people with all the money and the lofty titles to retrieve this story, we would still be waiting if we waited for someone in Hollywood to give us a permission. Permission to make this film, we would still be waiting. The bottom line is something that William Grimes shows us in this film and in this book is to give yourself permission. And I want women to take that away, that message away children, anyone who has a desire or is passionate about anything. Don’t wait for someone to tell you, yes, you can, because you’ll be waiting a long time. You have to go out there and seize the moment by any means necessary. Okay. And when I say any means necessary, I mean in a good, law abiding way, you can get your story out there. And stories are powerful. Storytelling changes, perspectives. You’re not out there pointing fingers and saying, you know, you are this here, that you should have done it this way. So you simply tell your story and people what people will take away, what they need from this story. And we have people come to us all the time and talking about how this movie has inspired them and inspired them in ways that we never even conceptualize. So storytelling is powerful. Film is a great way to tell a marvelous story, and so is writing your life story. But another thing that I want our audience to come away with is that genealogy for the African American has the power to reclaim what was once denied. You see, by reclaiming the lives of our people who are often marginal and insignificant. We get a chance to honor them when we reclaim this history, and through that process of reclaiming and honoring our ancestors, fortify us and they help to make us whole. That is very important to me, and I want people out there into generationally talking about the family story. So often we hear about, Oh, who wants to talk about that? I mean, I’ve heard this so many times. Who wants to talk about picking cotton? You know, let’s leave that in the past. But yeah, we got to talk about the painful things. We have to talk about the history and what we lived through so that we young can remember what it was like. But not only that, they’re going to carry those names forward so they’re not forgotten. They’re going to carry those locations forward. There’ll be a memory of where our people came from. And then once you start doing the research, you put meat on the bones and then a story develops one worthy of remembrance and sharing. So I hope Sheila’s journey of the search for William Grimes sparks that kind of an interest and dialog.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:21:29] And the same. One final question. Were you able to reach out to Benjamin Grimes family once you completed this project?
Virginia Mason [00:21:35] Oh, let me tell you. Yes. The year was 2000 when my mother and I took a trip back to King George County, Virginia, where William Grimes was born and the estate Eagle’s Nest still stands. And that was the home of Benjamin Grimes. And I wanted to in fact, I was invited to go back and to tour the grounds with the present day owner who had no affiliation with the the family. By the way, Eagle’s Nest remained in the family for three. The Grimes and Fitz, your family for 300 years before it sold in 1974, the year I began high school. So that legacy was rich and very much entrenched. And I went back there at the invitation of the present day owner, and he told me that, you know, we really should get this story to the historic local historical society, because it’s he thought it was a compelling story. Long story short, at the time, in the year 2000, when I thought we had come a long way as a nation. I was moved. The story was sort of rebuffed and they were not interested in it. And then I realized what I was up against. Mm hmm. So I. I left it alone. And when my book came out in 2008, and even up to the present time, I get people contacting me all all the time saying that we are related. And these are white Grimes’s and Fitz, and we have connected. And they’re the younger generation who are definitely open to the story. And so it sort of taken an interesting and a nice twist in that we are embracing each other.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:23:48] Any final comment, Sean?
Speaker 4 [00:23:50] No, just information on basically how to how to help us out in this journey. People want to get involved. A good place to start is w WW dot Gina’s journey dot com. It has the trailer. It has all the information on the film, all the places we’ve been, all the places we’re going, and most importantly, a link to seeing the film on the biggest platform, which is Amazon Prime. The most important thing is we want to share the story and get it out. Another myth you want to dispel is that a lot of people think that African-Americans in general can’t work together. Well, I think Regina’s Masons family, my family, and all of us together prove that that’s not true. We took the book, we entered a seven year journey, and we were able to come out on the other side with this wonderful film. And everybody is still friendly. We’re all together. You know, we we, you know, fought like cats and dogs, and we’re very passionate about getting the best quality and getting this done. But our bonds were never broken. We started as a family group. We we made this incredible project and we ended as an even stronger family group. And that’s something that I think is important for people to know. And the only way they’re going to know that is if, you know, our group as African-Americans and Americans at large spread the word about this film to create a studio quality, independent film and maintain the story rights for Gina and maintain the ownership of the film is an incredible story in itself, and it proves what we can do not only as a as a family group, but as you know, as a people in general. So I think it’s important to get that out. And the only way that’s going to happen is if we move mountains by blowing this film up, we want it to go viral. So please watch it on Amazon Prime. Spread the Web site, spread the link around and leave a review. Leaving reviews on Amazon Prime helps r r r algorithm. It helps it get bigger and bigger and spread further. So the best thing that we think the audience can do for us and the greatest compliment is to just tell a friend about the film. And in that way they become part of our journey. This film was made for the community, by the community, made by people that helped us along the way, and now we’re just going to the next phase of it. So anything they can do to spread the word, you know, nationally, internationally about the film, anything they can do to get the word out there and let people know about this story, we greatly appreciate.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:26:30] Ms.. Mason, you’ll find the comments.
Virginia Mason [00:26:32] Oh, yes. I just kind of wanted to echo a little bit about what Sean is saying. We definitely want the public to support this film, genuinely support it, and to view it and view it with their all ages, their grandparents, mothers, fathers make it a family thing because it is a family story. It is definitely a family story. And one thing that Sean and I like to do and we have been invited really from the East Coast to the West Coast and all this all over the U.S. bringing screenings to on university level campuses. We’re at Historical Society genealogical societies. We come with our film and we have a nice presentation that we bring to. The audience as well. So we show the film are accessible on Amazon Prime is Shaun said. But we do engagements all over the nation as well, so if anyone’s interested, they can check us out on Genius Journey dot com.
John L. Hanson Jr. [00:27:39] Regina mason International Speaker, executive producer and author of Life of William Grimes, The Runaway Slave, published by Oxford University Press. If you have questions, comments or suggestions as to the future In Black America programs, email us at In Black America at Kuti that ohaji. Also, let us know what radio station you heard is over. Remember to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. The views and opinions expressed on this program are not necessarily those of the station or of the University of Texas at Austin. You can hear previous programs online at KUT.org Until we had the opportunity again for Jodi co producer David Alvarez. I’m John L. Hanson Jr. Thank you for joining us today. Please join us again next week.
Speaker 2 [00:28:31] CD copies of this program are available and may be purchased by Writing In Black America CDs, KUT Radio 300 West Dean Keeton St., Austin, Texas 78712. This has been a production of KUT Radio.