When Rodney Hawkins was a producer at CBS News, he did three stories based on the preservation of his family’s cemetery deep in the piney woods of East Texas.
Researchers at Stephen F. Austin State University and Southern Methodist University helped Hawkins and his family in undertaking research on their ancestors who were buried there.
In a touching moment in the second of the three stories Hawkins produced, he cries as he sees the document that recorded the sale, in 1842, of his great-great-great-great grandfather, Richard A. Curl, who was about 20 years old, and 13 other slaves for $5,900.
Then in 1867, just two years after emancipation, Curl was able to buy some land in Nacogdoches County, and that land still belongs to his descendants.
What prompted me to research my family history was a professor from SMU I was interviewing for CBS Evening News about the pandemic. [Dr. Eric G. Bing, professor of global health in the Department of Applied Physiology and Sport Management]
We were just chit-chatting about different projects and different things. He was looking into his son’s history because he was adopted and was from East Texas. He wanted more African Americans in that region to not only find their history but to sign up to give their DNA because it would help him find out who his son’s relatives were.
Why that was so impactful was that I had this idea that looking into my family history was going to be drudging up history that I didn’t want to necessarily know because it’d be painful.
I was already going through in the headlines with Black Lives Matter, social justice, and me on the frontlines as a reporter, all these painful and traumatic experiences. So why would I want to go and find out my family was enslaved, and chances are, they were.
I told Dr. Bing that I had a 106-year-old great-grandmother who was still living, and he said, “You need to go interview her now.” I never thought about it. She’s feisty as ever, and so she still had her wits about her.
So, I went with my sister and a few of my great-uncles, and we interviewed her. And three months later, she passed away. And it was at that point that I realized I had to start documenting. And I just became obsessed with understanding our family history because it literally could be lost.
My grandmother and grandad own one of the main properties there [on the family land], and my mom just bought the property right next to them. And then my wife and I just bought property across the street. My grandmother has a little trailer that we’ve been going to for as long as I can remember. It was right next to the original house, which has since been demolished.
My sister [Tayelor Miller] and I were doing this family history project, and we were discussing it as a family. We were in my grandmother’s trailer. And I said that CBS was coming down to film, and my sister said, “Well, does this mean that CBS owns the rights to all of our stories in our family history?”
I said it was a unique opportunity for us to do this, but soon after, I said, “Maybe I should start my own production company, and I should start finding stories that I want to tell. And I just started the process of founding the production company at that point.