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Behind the Scenes

Guy Mendes
Guy Mendes

As the producer/director of Kentucky's Underground Railroad, Guy Mendes' job was to find the story - a story that covers the first half of the 19th century, with few photos, no film, and about something that was secretive.

"We'll never know the whole story," he says, "but this is the first place where a number of stories are in one place."

How do you visualize it, make it television? They shot the river, the woods, and the creeks -the likely corridors that people took- to put the viewers temporarily in the mindset of the runaways. They also used images from books, engravings, and paintings.

"The dispossessed and oppressed aren't photographed, and they don't get in the history books," explains Mendes. Finding the stories led the production team into a web where one lead would send them to the source of other leads, and so on, until the story finally came together.

So Mendes became a hunter/gatherer, he says, of lots of individual stories, as many as he could find over a wide geographical area, including Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and three points in Ontario, Canada.

"You start with the people who have been doing their own investigations, both academics and lay people," he says.

The winding path to one discovery began with the story of the Crosswhites, a family that escaped to Michigan from Meade County, Kentucky. Mendes was told that there were probably some descendents of the Crosswhites in Michigan. He found them and they led him to a man named Sheppard, who said they really ought to talk to his daughter who lives in southern Indiana and works in Louisville.

Finally, viewers see Jackie Sheppard Ford telling the story of her great-grandfather's great grandfather, who fled to Michigan, was discovered by a posse after a few years, but who was defended and saved by 200 Michigan townspeople who helped the family reach Canada.

Mendes says it's been dark and depressing work at times. There are tragedies. There are other times they tell the story of someone who made it.

"I'm haunted by the names of runaways -like Ben and Jack and Emily and Kissia and Henley and Andrew and Elleck," says Mendes. "Did they make it? Did they get there or die in the process. I don't know."

Mendes, who has won Emmys and other awards for many of his previous documentaries, says Kentucky's Underground Railroad may be the most important project he's ever worked on.

"It can be used to help us understand what went on," says Mendes. He adds, "...and most of us don't understand."

"Kentucky was a breeding ground for slaves," he says. "Kentucky had more slaves than it needed and sold thousands 'down the river' splitting families apart who never saw each other again. ...My Old Kentucky Home," he continues, "was originally the lament of a slave who'd been sold "down the river" and was missing his old Kentucky home."

"I think all white people in this country need to contemplate the crack of the whip, the binding of the shackle," he says. "We must do that to have any reconcilliation. It's not over and done with. We're still living with the lingering effects of slavery, and it's racism."

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Last Updated: Tuesday, 09-May-2006 10:39:16 Eastern Daylight Time