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A Letter From
Dear Potential Supporter,
I am thrilled to have completed over half of the shooting phase this summer for my film project Hope of Escape! It is a true story about Diana Williams, her daughter Cornelia Read, and William Gould, Cornelia's sweetheart, enslaved people who were determined to escape Wilmington, North Carolina. I believe their story adds another unique experience to the greater slavery narrative in the United States. The film underscores how historical stories of black lives matter. And it champions enslaved American heroes and courageous abolitionist allies, who, in the decades leading up to the Civil War, were willing to take on immense risk in order to combat the wretchedness of slavery. It is also a very personal story especially because Cornelia, and William are my great, great grandparents! (Diana is my great, great, great grandmother!)
I am reaching out to you to ask for your support. We are in need of more funding to complete our production goals for the remainder of this year. I am happy to report we have received several grants including the Cabell Grant, a Hollins University Travel and Research Grant, and the University Film and Video Association Production award. That said, these funds were for jump-starting the process. Now we need additional funds to complete filming from August 2021 to January 2022. I am hoping you might be interested in contributing to this important story. (See below how to donate funds to our film project.)
The urgency and desire to make this film stems from my deep yearning to see more stories about women of color in history. They are unsung heroes. We’ve seen an impressive increase of African American women protagonists in historical dramas over the last few years, such as Hidden Figures (2016) and Harriet (2019). But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Luckily for me, all I have to do is look back into my own family history to find stories about courageous black women.
I have known a great deal about my African American forebears since I was a little girl, especially William Benjamin Gould (whom I call Wilby in the film), my great, great grandfather. I happen to have access to a diary that Gould kept during his escape and continued to write as a sailor for the Union during the Civil War. I do feel, though, that the stories of William Gould and other male relatives have often dominated my family narrative and obscured stories about the amazing women in my family who were just as significant and brave. My film strives to highlight their experiences and to espouse their achievements.
Hope of Escape also gives me a chance to shine more light onto the fact that black women played a significant role in the anti-slavery and abolitionist movements of the 19th century. Again, overshadowed by their husbands, their contributions continue to remain buried and belittled. For example, Julia Williams, my great, great aunt, a significant anti-slavery warrior in her own right, is still viewed as playing second fiddle to her husband Henry Highland Garnet, even though she helped write most of his speeches and tirelessly led black communities as his collaborator.
Although my film is a very personal exploration, I wish to add another perspective to our collective historical memory as a U.S. citizen and a descendant of slaves. Along this line, my film specifically explores the experiences of mixed-race slaves, sired by their white masters, with all of the advantages and disadvantages. The film also shows how it sometimes “took a village” to emancipate a slave, and how much my own family depended on a complex network of activists, both inside and outside the country. We see how, even though separated for many years and by thousands of miles, families (both free and enslaved) managed to keep connections with each other, holding onto hope that their circumstances would change for the better.
Above all, Hope of Escape is meant to encourage others to discover, learn, and tell more stories about the diverse and complex African American experience of women during the slave era. What did it feel like to be in their shoes? How do their struggles relate to today? Are they the same struggles? Can we learn from our forebears’ past experiences? Despite the challenges of studying woefully incomplete 19th century records, these stories can be told with patience and persistence.
Sometimes I’ve been asked why the film is called “Hope of Escape” instead of “Hope to Escape”? For me, “hope to” puts emphasis on the word “escape,” the actual physical action, while “hope of” makes us think more about the word “hope” and what the term means, at a deeper, more thoughtful level. Former President Barack Obama describes hope as
“that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”
I believe the women in my family, as well as women in scores of other families, did indeed have this fierce insistence of hope in their hearts during slavery times. They courageously persevered so that their descendants (like me) can keep fighting and hopefully will someday escape the national nightmare of institutional slavery and its lasting consequences. In a small way, my film is part of that fight.