UCCS professor featured in new PBS documentary on Black religion history

Brianna Beassie-Weil 

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     Paul Harvey, chair of the UCCS Department of History and author of “Through the Storm, Through the Night,” participated in a new PBS documentary series, titled “The Black Church: This is Our Story, This is Our Song.”  

     The documentary features Henry Louis Gates Jr. as he explores the roots of African American religion, diving into the beginnings with the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the ways in which enslaved Africans maintained and adapted their religious practices. Gates followed this history throughout the brutality of slavery and up to emancipation. The runtime is about four hours.  

     Harvey teaches a variety of classes on American history at UCCS, while his academic research is primarily focused on religion within American history. Harvey is also an accomplished writer and editor, having worked on roughly twelve books and scholarly articles.  

     Harvey also just finished a Martin Luther King Jr. biography, which he hopes will show audiences that Martin Luther King Jr. was a more complex individual than he is sometimes portrayed to be. According to Harvey, most people do not understand who the civil rights activist really was.   

     PBS reached out to Harvey to participate in “The Black Church” documentary because they had read some of his books and wanted to add some of his insights to the program, an inquiry that Harvey said came unexpectedly through his email.   

     According to Harvey, the interview lasted several hours but he noted that he knew what to expect for the occasion. After interviewing him all day, PBS used about two minutes of Harvey’s segment, which was spread throughout the course of the documentary. 

Paul Harvey, photo courtesy of UCCS website.  

     PBS asked Harvey several questions about his book, “Through the Storm, Through the Night,” which centers on the prominent figures and events throughout Black Christianity. The book also included a summary of the importance of the Black Church and its role in history, a synopsis that PBS believed would fit in well with their series, especially at the end of the documentary itself.  

     Harvey thought the documentary was a good introduction to the concepts of the slave trade during the American Reconstruction period, 1865-1880s, as well as the religious practices of the slaves. These practices included Christianity, Islam and other African traditions. The documentary also explores how churches were connected to the civil rights movements throughout the centuries. 

     While Harvey viewed the documentary as an introduction to these ideas, he noted that there was a lot of information he hoped would have been included in the documentary. One of these topics that was missing from the PBS special was the prominence of Black Catholics during this time period and their populations within New Orleans, Louisiana and parts of Maryland.   

     Harvey added that this was an unfortunate exclusion, because it is important for audiences to understand and learn about what role Black Catholics played in history.  

     Black Catholics today took to the internet to express their frustration that the group was excluded from the documentary, many writing negative reviews of the series, according to Harvey.    

     Regarding the documentary itself, Harvey provided a few final thoughts. He mentioned that PBS’s film about the Black Church was originally supposed to be around eight hours long, but it was cut down to about half of the projected runtime.  

     Harvey explained that he believed this was “unfortunate because if they had kept the eight hours, they could’ve told a richer story about The Black Church and its significance in American History.” 

     However, Harvey also pointed out that the film had a nice mixture of historical information, and that there were other interviews with modern celebrities and contemporary people who weighed in on the documentary as well.  

     Harvey also liked how the documentary included historical footage and music, and how it mentioned the first Black Baptist church, which was located in Savannah, Georgia.  

     Overall, Harvey was said he was mostly satisfied with the documentary and would recommend it to a general audience that is hoping to learn more about American history and the role of the Black Church throughout the earlier civil rights movements and religion.  

     He pointed out that the documentary may not be the best for a more scholarly audience because scholars, like himself, may pick at each subject and criticize certain aspects of the film. Harvey complimented the series for providing the audience with a nice introduction to this specific era of American history.