'Anna' team combines to tell slave's story through innovation

'Anna' team combines to tell slave's story through innovation

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Craig Chandler | University Communication
A computer screen shows an image of Thalia Rodgers’ hand and brush as she creates an animation by painting over a live-action scene with a technique called rotoscoping. Rodgers is a student member of a team at Nebraska that is creating an animated film depicting the life of a 19th century enslaved woman who jumped out a third-story window after she had been sold to slave traders for the cotton industry.

Rather than be marched south to work on a cotton plantation, an enslaved woman called Anna leaped out of a third-story window in Washington, D.C., in November 1815.

Abolitionist pamphleteers soon latched onto Anna’s story, depicting her as an object of pity, an example of how slavery’s cruelty drove people to madness or suicide.

Based upon recent discoveries by University of Nebraska-Lincoln historian William G. Thomas, a team of Husker artists and scholars are using animation to create a dynamic new interpretation of Anna’s life. The 14-minute short film is based on a screenplay by Kwakiutl Dreher, associate professor of English and ethnic studies. Once it’s completed, perhaps as early as 2018, its creators expect it to be entered in major film festivals.

[VIDEO]: The 'Anna' Project

“It’s a story that just about everybody had gotten wrong,” said Nebraska's Michael Burton, who is leading filmmaking and animation for the film. “She’s famous for jumping out of a window. Some people thought she died. Some people misconstrued her reason for jumping.”

The team's project comes amid renewed academic debate about slavery’s historical role in the American economy and its textile industry.

Michael Burton, assistant professor of practice of textiles, merchandising and fashion design, displays a costume on a dress form. Burton is leading filmmaking and animation for the film.

Anna, whose full name was Ann Williams, was sold 23 years before Georgetown University’s founders sold 272 enslaved people from its Maryland farms to pay off the university’s massive debts. But she and her two young daughters, who had lived on a plantation near Bladensburg, Maryland, were caught up in the same commercial pipeline in which about 1 million Chesapeake-area slaves were sold south to supply the cotton frontier in the decades after the transatlantic slave trade was banned in the early 19th century.

Georgetown and the Jesuit order that founded it apologized April 18 for the 1838 sale.

“Ann’s story was a significant precursor to the Georgetown sale,” Thomas said. “Her actions in the face of the interstate slave trade drew attention to its depravity and demonstrated the burning quest for human freedom and fulfillment.”

Will Thomas
William G. Thomas

Thomas and other scholars confirmed that Ann Williams survived her jump and went on to win her freedom in court 17 years later. The discovery was thanks to O Say Can You See, an online searchable database of D.C.-area court records spearheaded by Thomas. Thomas consulted with Candyce Carter, an art historian at Stanford University, who also worked to connect the dots of Ann Williams’ story using information in the database.

Her leap from the garret of Miller’s Tavern to escape slave traders cost Ann Williams dearly. She broke her back and both arms. Her daughters were shipped south without her; there was no evidence she ever saw them again.

But the filmmakers don’t presume that the jump was a suicide attempt.

“She survived to have four more children and she won her freedom in a court of law,” Thomas said. “This is a remarkable discovery that changes everything. There is no question that she is a survivor.”

The short film has been financed on a shoestring budget that includes an arts and humanities enhancement grant from the university, as well as contributions from the College of Education and Human Sciences, the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, the Department of History and the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design. An internet crowdfunding campaign generated funds to pay three student workers who spend several hours a week painting the animated scenes, frame by frame.

The team also consulted with filmmaking experts from the university's Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film. Wendy Weiss, an emeritus professor and acclaimed weaver, provided advice on building a prop loom for a story line in which Ann Williams’ mother teaches her daughter the craft of weaving. Nicole Rudolph, a graduate student who previously worked at Colonial Williamsburg, made costumes for the actors.

The team expects to learn this summer if a request for funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities will be granted.

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Kwakiutl Dreher

Even with the recent historical findings, details about “Anna’s” life remain sparse. Dreher, a literary scholar and playwright, agreed to write a screenplay fleshing out her character and motivations. Her one-woman show, “In a Smoke-filled Room, Color Matters,” involved a similar process when she elaborated upon her grandmother’s life as a seamstress in South Carolina.

Dreher’s classes on African-American literature often include slave narratives.

“I wasn’t familiar with this specific story, but I know about black women and slavery,” she said.

Dreher developed a story in which Ann Williams’ mother taught her daughter survival skills, including the craft of weaving. She also imagined how Ann Williams might have met and married her husband.

Dreher said she read and re-read the few pages of information Thomas provided her, waiting for the hidden story to emerge. Eventually, she found the clue: “Anna” reportedly said she didn’t want to leave her husband, who had not been sold.

“The fact that she was with her husband enabled her to bear up under whatever injustices happened,” Dreher said. “It wasn’t being a mother, it was being a wife. That’s the kernel of the story.”

She believes “Anna” went to the window in a dangerous attempt to reach her husband, who was working nearby in Maryland.

Burton teaches drawing, fabric design and animation in the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Clothing Design. He previously created animated segments for a forthcoming PBS program on the famed Dull Knife family of the Pine Ridge Reservation and for Thomas’ previous research on railroads and U.S. history.

“I’m very inspired by making historical animations,” he said. “When I finished the Dull Knife piece, I felt this is a genre I really want to keep working in.”

While the story is an interpretation, it is based on factual historical analysis and material culture research. The story accurately represents slavery as it existed in Maryland in the early 19th Century, Thomas said.

“We wanted to illuminate a life for ‘Anna,’ while remaining faithful to the historical record,” he said.

Imani Brown, a sophomore art student, paints over live-action scenes with an animation technique called rotoscoping. Brown, whose career goal is to create animated cartoons, is part of a team at Nebraska that is creating an animated film depicting the life of Ann “Anna” Williams, an enslaved woman who jumped out of a third-story window in Washington D.C. in 1815 after she had been sold into the cotton industry. Another student animator, Thalia Rodgers, a senior art student, works on another part of the scene in the background.