Holly Pinheiro’s research is centered on freeborn Northern Black families and their military-related experiences from 1850-1930. So when the assistant professor of African American history got an invitation to appear on Curiosity Stream’s “Civil War Escape Stories,” he was a little perplexed.
But the department’s newest faculty member agreed to the gig and proceeded with the interviews on a humid October Saturday with the Curiosity Stream film crew, navigating vocal waterfowl at Furman lake, and an equally vocal bell tower carillon.
That was the backdrop for eight episodes in which Pinheiro will be featured come Spring 2022. He isn’t sure about the number of total episodes or how many other experts will be tapped for the series, but he estimates another three or four “talking heads,” might also go on record.
He was first alerted to the plan after an Oberlin College colleague recommended him for the docuseries. After exchanging a few phone calls and nailing down the logistics and legal paperwork between Furman and Curiosity Stream, it was a matter of meeting face-to-face, or better, face-to-camera.
Asked if he was accustomed to being in front of the camera and if he enjoys the limelight, Pinheiro said flatly, “No and no – I’m not accustomed to it and I don’t enjoy it … I’d rather be lurking in the shadows.” But the spotlight is all well and good with Pinheiro as long as he can tell the stories and help make them accessible to more people.
He said most of his on-camera comments were general in nature to cover the scope of the series, but at other times, he was able to offer more nuanced information about things like the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 – “a federal policy that jeopardized the lives and safety of every person of color, particularly Black,” he said.
He touched on topics like the Civil War home front – the Black familial experience during the war, the experiences of enslaved skilled laborers, and South Carolina’s Robert Smalls’ heroic and stealthy commandeering of the CSS Planter in 1862 from Confederate forces and subsequent delivery of the ship, its cargo and 16 newly freed people to the Union Navy. “So basically everything but my expertise,” he said, laughing.
No problem for Pinheiro, who is on the cusp of releasing a new book where his vein of research will be on full display.
“The Families Civil War: Northern African American Soldiers and The Fight for Racial Justice” is scheduled to be published by University of Georgia Press in June 2022 as part of its “UnCivil War” series. It delves into “how racism, within and outside of military service, impacted the bodies, economies, family structures and social spaces of African Americans long after the war ended,” Pinheiro wrote in a description.
“I’m very excited about the book,” said Pinheiro, who received a book development grant from the Furman Humanities Center. “It recenters attention on aspects of the Civil War that most people ignore or don’t emphasize for whatever reason. It looks at Northern Black families connected to military service in some complicated but meaningful ways,” he explains.
Meantime, Pinheiro says “Civil War Escape Stories” gives him a chance to bring narratives to the fore about people who matter and what they endured.
“If this docuseries helps people get interested in South Carolinian, African American, women’s history – that’s great. If (filmmakers) want to reach out to me, that’s awesome. But at the end of the day, it’s about getting the public to see the value of and learning about these people’s stories,” he said.