Ahead of Black History Month, genealogy brand Ancestry surprised six descendants of slaves and abolitionists with details of their family histories.
Or family history, to be more precise, because four of them turned out to be related to one another, progeny of Mary Weems, an enslaved woman who escaped to Canada before the American Civil War. A short film, “Railroad Ties,” explores the way their lives were shaped by the journey she and others took on the Underground Railroad.
In December, Ancestry brought the small group from their homes around the country to Brooklyn. Though slavery had been illegal in New York State before the war, the Fugitive Slave Act, which required all Americans to turn in escaped slaves no matter what state they were in, made everywhere in America dangerous for those on the run.
Brooklyn became a hub for former slaves heading north, and was the home of Lewis Tappan, an abolitionist best known for his work helping the escaped slaves of the Amistad. He is also the ancestor of Seth, another member of the group. Tappan was instrumental in helping Weems escape to Canada through Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, the tie that connects all of the subjects in this film. A final surprise awaits the entire group, when a white man turns out to also be a descendant of a slave whose descendants began passing for white in the early 20th Century.
The full film by Weber Shandwick, SundanceTV and Omnicom Media Group’s The Content Collective was released at the Sundance Film Festival and can be viewed online. It will also run on SundanceTV and AMC three times throughout February, in both daytime and primetime slots. It is directed by music journalist and creative director of “Mass Appeal” Sacha Jenkins. In addition to the film, Ancestry announced 70 new and updated regions for African-Americans looking for more specificity about the parts of the world their ancestors are from.