LEILA FADEL, HOST:
A new documentary, "Black Patriots: Heroes Of The Revolution," introduces us to key figures of the American Revolution that are not typically in history books. It profiles African American Patriots during the Revolutionary era. They were writers, double agents, martyrs and soldiers. "Black Patriots" premieres Wednesday on History.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the executive producer. He's a Hall of Fame basketball player, activist and 2016 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When I caught up with him, he told me that curiosity led him to this project. He wanted to learn more about the black heroes who'd been written out of history. But he also says his connection to these stories is personal.
KAREEM ABDUL-JABBAR: You know, I was born and raised in New York City in Manhattan. And the part of Manhattan that I lived in was the last part of Manhattan that George Washington controlled before he had to leave and escape and go to Valley Forge. And, you know, I read about that incident in my history books, and I was surprised to find out that it happened in my neighborhood.
So after that, my experience as a child, we often would find, like, musket balls and arrowheads in the parks right there in Northern Manhattan. You know, I felt a real connection to the history of that area.
FADEL: Why don't we know their stories already?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Well, we don't know their stories already because people who write history books have focused on what European Americans thought and what their objectives were. This nation was founded by white people for white people. At the time, blacks were not allowed citizenship. Women were not allowed to vote. Native Americans were not allowed citizenship.
FADEL: You know, what was one of the stories that impacted you most - if you could recount one character, one moment that sticks with you?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Peter Salem is absolutely a hero doing a right thing at a very crucial time. Peter Salem frustrated the final attempt by the British to take the field by shooting Major Pitcairn, who was an officer in the British army. He shot him before he could gather the troops. The British professional soldiers thought that they could run our side off of the field - because, you know, they weren't professional soldiers. But we changed their mind over the period of the Revolutionary War. And in the end, the British had to concede.
FADEL: So so vital and yet not in the history books - even today, really, when you learn about the American Revolution in school.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Yeah. But, you know, there's a painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill, and Peter Salem, I think, is in it. He's down in a corner, hiding behind the shoulder of one of the white American officers. And you almost don't see him. I think in some paintings, he's been cropped off. But there's a black soldier there.
FADEL: Now, white Americans were fighting for independence, and black Americans were fighting for their actual freedom as human beings.
ABDUL-JABBAR: Yes. The - both sides of the war really tried to recruit black slaves into their army, and they promised freedom to any black slave that would join either army. The ones that join the revolutionary cause were lied to. They were not granted their freedom after they did serve in the army. But the blacks that joined the British army were able to effect their own freedom. When the British retired from North America, they took those guys with them who had citizenship and went to places like Nova Scotia, the Caribbean or even back to England.
FADEL: There was a moment in the film that kind of stuck with me. It's involving Crispus Attucks, who's widely seen as the first person to die in the American Revolution - a black American, a free man who'd escaped enslavement. It's regarding his burial. We'll play the clip.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "BLACK PATRIOTS: HEROES OF THE REVOLUTION")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The sort of local traditions of segregation were disbanded for a moment so that he and his comrades were buried together. There were no desegregated cemeteries.
FADEL: That's significant. I mean, the idea that in death, giving up your life for this cause was a moment where you could be buried equally - it was quite stunning.
ABDUL-JABBAR: It's amazing - some of the attitudes that prevail at those times, you know. And usually, these actors were the end thought of, you know, pseudoscience and really offbeat theories as to racial superiority and inferiority.
FADEL: How important is it in this moment to look back at the history of this country in a moment where a lot of these isms are rearing their heads and in the politics of today?
ABDUL-JABBAR: Some of the things that we see today remind us of things that happened before, and not in a very positive way. When I saw the children that were trying to apply for asylum in America being separated from the parents at the Texas border, it reminded me of the way that slave children were ripped from their parents so that their parents could be sent to various plantations and worked to death. That was a common thing back then.
And the same ability to ignore human suffering and do something like that which was exhibited by slave masters was exhibited by some of the officials dealing with the people applying for asylum. You know, it was a 150-year gap, but it was the same images and something that we should not be proud of.
FADEL: That was NBA legend, activist and author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem, thank you.
ABDUL-JABBAR: It's been my pleasure talking to you.
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