In 1977, millions of TV viewers tuned in to the miniseries version of Alex Haley's Roots, the story of a young man taken from his West African village to work as a slave on a southern plantation. But while the nation's attention was riveted on the depiction of Haley's family tree, the piquing of interest in America's shameful history didn't translate to many other accounts of the transatlantic slave trade.
One of those accounts was a book published that same year, Prince Among Slaves, which chronicled the fate of a young royal heir from present-day Guinea named Abdul Rahman Ibrahima Sori, who ended up a slave in Mississippi. Its author, historian Terry Alford, came across the story in old deed books while doing graduate research in Mississippi. To Alford's chagrin, the book was largely panned by local academics, and its story remained in relative obscurity. Though it has remained in print since its release, Alford admits that the dramatization of Haley's novel had burned many out on the subject. "No sour grapes," Alford told TIME, acknowledging that Roots absorbed much of the day's attention on black history subjects. "But the seeds had been sown for that year."
Three decades later, the amazing, nearly lost tale of an African royal forced into slavery will finally get its due as the basis of a PBS documentary premiering Monday.
The documentary, told through several reenactments, relates the story from Rahman's own perspective. "The story really has been obscure, but it shed light on a part of African American history that I'd never really heard about," co-executive producer Alex Kronemer explained, saying the story diffuses widely held stereotypes. "West African societies were well-developed and literate, but people think of them as primitive and vulnerable. But now we know African history doesn't start at zero."
In 1788, Rahman, who was also a military commander, was captured by his enemies, sold to slave traders and eventually taken to a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi, where he spent the next 40 years using his agricultural and management skills to turn its owner into one of the wealthiest men in the antebellum South. Through a chance reunion with a man that Rahman and his father once helped when he traveled in Africa, and the support of a local newspaper publisher, a campaign for his freedom began, and Rahman became one of the best-known faces of the strengthening abolitionist movement. He became so well-known, in fact, that he was a point of contention in the 1828 presidential election between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Early on, Adams gave Rahman his support, but Jackson used it against Adams politically and went on to win the election.
Eventually, in 1828, Rahman won freedom for himself and his wife, and began the journey home to Africa. He launched a campaign to raise funds to free his nine children, who remained enslaved, but never raised all of the money. He finally left for Africa, but just days away from his home, Fouta Djalon, he fell ill and died at the age of 67.
"This is a story of a man's life that has been almost lost to historical memory," said Kronemer. "When we learned the story of this African Muslim prince, we were moved and captured by it, and there was a sense of responsibility to bring this story to light."
Kronemer, who collaborated with co-executive producer Michael Wolfe on this documentary and their previous Unity Productions Foundation work, Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet, learned about Prince Among Slaves while discussing the idea of a project based on the spiritual lives of slaves. After coming across Alford's book and contacting him, the two attended a reunion of Rahman's descendants in Natchez. That meeting, and subsequent research, introduced them to examples of African slaves who were able to hold on to their cultural and religious identities and use their educations and practical skills to help in the development of early America.
The main theme in both the documentary and the book is of human resilience, Alford says. "What has always interested me is when people get caught between a rock and a hard place, how do they respond?"
Bill Duke, who directed the reenactments in Prince Among Slaves, admits that he didn't know about Rahman's story until Kronemer approached him with the project. But this was a chance to allow some perspective on history. "The intent of this project is to humanize that word slavery," said Duke. "When people hear the word slave, they see black bodies in loincloths that came from some kind of barbaric culture. This shows that we were far more advanced than the perception of Western civilization."