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Shows fill in an overlooked history

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2003

When Koco Eaton was accepted to Johns Hopkins University in 1983, he knew he was entering one of the country's most accomplished medical schools.

What he didn't realize was that the man he'd known all his life as his Uncle Vivien -- in truth, Vivien Thomas, his grandfather's first cousin -- had made medical history at Johns Hopkins by inventing a surgical procedure to cure "blue baby syndrome," a heart defect that reduces the amount of oxygen in an infant's blood.

History recorded the procedure as the Blalock/Taussig shunt, with no mention of the administrative assistant who directed chief of surgery Alfred Blalock over his shoulder as he performed the first surgery in 1944, pioneering a process of sewing up babies' arteries.

That's because Thomas was a black man who never attended college and didn't have a medical degree. He was a medical genius whose partnership with longtime employer Blalock allowed him to develop the procedure. He got no credit for the innovation until nearly 30 years later (back then, he still had to work as a bartender at Blalock's dinner parties to make ends meet).

Even Eaton, a respected St. Petersburg orthopedist and a team doctor for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball team (and onetime St. Petersburg Times columnist), didn't know what his relative had accomplished until he began studying at Johns Hopkins, where Thomas' portrait became the first picture of a black man to hang in the medical school.

"I'd known him all my life. . . . Then when I went there for medical school, it was like having Michael Jordan as your uncle but you never watched basketball," Eaton said last week, just before flying to Washington, D.C., for a reception celebrating $500,000 provided by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKlein for scholarships in Thomas' name.

"He wasn't bitter," said Eaton of "Uncle Vivien," who died in 1985 at age 75, not long after seeing his young relative accepted to the school where he once was barred from eating lunch with white colleagues. "He saw himself as a link; he saw the next generation coming and knew they would have a better life. To me, that's truly the American story."

Thomas' story will be told at 9 tonight in Partners of the Heart, a documentary airing on WEDU-Ch. 3 as part of PBS's American Experience series. Producers spent eight years developing the film, which traces Thomas' progress from applying for a janitor's job at Vanderbilt University just after the Great Depression to his recognition in 1976 with an honorary degree from Johns Hopkins.

It's one of myriad stories about black people viewers will see in February, courtesy of Black History Month. The big networks are too busy chasing ratings in an important "sweeps" month, but cable and public television outlets often step up with compelling, substantive stories about black folks to commemorate the occasion, despite criticism, even from some black people, of the concept itself.

My colleague St. Petersburg Times columnist Elijah Gosier wrote last month that "after decades of building black self-esteem, Black History Month has outlived that usefulness and has now slid into the realm of counterproductivity." Writer Mark Goldblatt last year labeled Black History Month the "Great Patronizing" in a USA Today story, calling it "a pointless exercise" that distorts and exaggerates the place of some black people in history.

The arguments that many offer -- the occasion encourages people to shoehorn black history into one month, that black people have achieved enough to deserve inclusion 365 days a year -- make a certain kind of sense.

I must, however, politely disagree.

Like so many things that involve race, the devil of Black History Month is in the details. Specifically, the details of how one chooses to celebrate an occasion that began as Black History Week in 1926.

For me, Black History Month has always been like Valentine's Day, or a loved one's birthday. Of course, you love your honey every day of the year, but certain occasions are reserved for showing that love a little more publicly.

And how drab would your relationship be if you didn't take advantage of those occasions?

Jacqueline Glover has heard the Black History Month argument before. And as producer of HBO's startling documentary Unchained Memories: Readings From the Slave Narratives, she has faced the question of whether the pay cable giant scheduled the film to debut at 8 tonight simply to meet some artificial Black History Month mandate.

Her defense? That the show -- which features stars such as Oprah Winfrey, Samuel L. Jackson and St. Petersburg-raised Angela Bassett reading excerpts from interviews conducted with dozens of former slaves in the 1930s -- has a life beyond February, with a coming book, DVD release, classroom study guides and traveling exhibition developed by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

"This film is something that would have been done any time by HBO . . . (but Black History Month) is a time when people start thinking about subject matter like this," said Glover, who spent more than two years developing the project at HBO. "What could be better than having something like this to turn to when the whole country is talking about it?"

Unchained Memories offers a starkly human look at slavery, rendered in the words of the last generation to suffer under its yoke. Those words come courtesy of the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writers' Project, a government effort that conducted more than 2,000 interviews with former slaves from 1936 to 1938.

Glover and her compatriots at HBO's documentary division sifted through 500 accounts that had photos of the interview subject, culling 45 interviews arranged to describe a slave's life from birth to marriage to death.

Jackson, for example, voices Marshal Butler, a slave who remembered taking a beating from the mercenary "paddy rollers," who roamed the countryside looking for slaves traveling without permits, just to see a lady friend at another plantation.

CCH Pounder, star of FX's The Shield, voices Rose Williams, a woman forced to sleep with another slave at age 16 because her master wanted to breed strong children. And Bassett reads the words of Mary Reynolds, whose father was a free black man who fell in love with her mother, married her and joined the other slaves working on the plantation when her mother's master wouldn't sell her to him.

The stars are shown in black clothing against a black background, their well-scrubbed and highly groomed faces a sometimes-jarring counterpoint to the deprived, uneducated and desperate people they are voicing. But some actors -- Jackson and Winfrey are a highlight -- are also shown reacting to the material, bringing their personal experiences to the task of playing long-dead people they've seen only in photographs.

The words eventually carry viewers into their stories, which describe with brutal detail how people could live in unlivable situations.

"We learned what it was like to work in the (master's) 'Big House' . . . what they did with their time off . . . religious practices and the struggle to get an education," Glover said. "I think the actors are a large part of why this material comes through. Their talent brought a level of credibility to this material."

That's a trait the HBO documentary shares with PBS's Partners of the Heart, which re-creates Thomas' experiences at Johns Hopkins with narration by film star Morgan Freeman (Kiss the Girls, Amistad) and readings of Thomas' memoirs by actor Courtney B. Vance (Law & Order: Criminal Intent).

PBS's documentary includes interviews with doctors, white and black, who trained under Thomas, along with the mother of one of the first children helped by the procedure. It also interviews Eaton, who explains how his relative was finally appointed to the Johns Hopkins faculty in the mid '70s, mentoring medical students until he retired in 1979.

"I can understand people who say this isn't black history, it's American history, and I agree with that 100 percent," Eaton said. "But the whole world benefited from (Thomas') discovery, and he was overlooked. Black History Month provides the perfect forum to showcase these stories . . . an untold history, which so much of black history often is."

-- To reach Eric Deggans, call (727) 893-8521, e-mail

At a glance

Unchained Memories airs tonight at 8 on HBO. Partners of the Heart airs tonight at 9 on WEDU-Ch. 3. The Florida International Museum and The Palladium Theater present a free screening of Unchained Memories at 7 p.m. Feb. 24, at the theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N, St. Petersburg. Reservations required: call Palladium box office, (727) 822-3590, Ext. 5.

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