PBS’ ‘Detective’ investigates history of Bontura

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 9, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; Once upon a time, it was thought that the antebellum house Bontura was built by a Spanish don.

Not so, said those filming a segment of the upcoming PBS show &uot;History Detectives&uot; at and around the circa 1851 house Thursday and today.

The house, which sits across Broadway Street from the Mississippi River bluff, was actually built by a free black man named Robert D. Smith.

Email newsletter signup

Actually, Mimi Miller, director of preservation and education for the Historic Natchez Foundation, made the discovery &045; &uot;History Detectives&uot; is just making the fascinating history known, said those filming for the show.

The premise of the show, which will premiere July 14, is this: history experts through records, interviews and other clues, find the answers to questions submitted by history buffs.

When the show’s researchers called historians throughout the nation to find topics for the series’ first shows, Miller was one of the historians they called. And the first history &uot;puzzle&uot; Miller thought of was Bontura.

&uot;How could he (Smith) go from Š traveling on a slave ship to building a house like this?&uot; was also the question of Fred Grinstein, a researcher for New York-based Lion Television.

For details, the curious will have to tune in to the show, although Grinstein did not have an exact date the Bontura episode will air.

This much he would divulge, however:

In the early 1800s, Smith traveled from Baltimore

&045; a city with a large free black population, but also a large slave port &045; to New Orleans.

&uot;Here we have an African-American going to the deep South &045; the antebellum South &045; when most others are going the other way,&uot; Dr. Tukufu Zuberi said.

Zuberi, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who counts the history of black enslaved people as one of his specialties, is one of the show’s four presenters, or people who conduct the on-air interviews.

From New Orleans, Smith traveled to Natchez, where he built Bontura.

Smith, who worked as a grocer in New Orleans and may have operated a carriage house at Bontura, &uot;had amassed great wealth,&uot; Grinstein said.

How did he accumulate so much money? Why travel to Natchez &045; or to the South at all, at that time?

Grinstein just grinned. &uot;We don’t want to give it all away,&uot; he said.

To get the details, the show’s researchers combed files in Natchez, Baltimore and New Orleans. They also shot footage for the episode Friday in Baltimore and earlier this week in New Orleans.

On Thursday, the &uot;History Detectives&uot; crew filmed interviews with the house’s current owners, Dr. Jim and Ruthie Coy, as well as footage around Natchez.

They were also scheduled to film footage at the Natchez City Cemetery, where Smith is buried, and tour Bontura with Ron Miller, executive director of the Historic Natchez Foundation.

Were the Coys nervous about being on film? Not really.

&uot;I’ve been receiving at (antebellum) houses Š since I was a little girl, so I’m used to speaking to groups of 20 at a time,&uot; Ruthie Coy said with a laugh.

&uot;And I was an orthopedic surgeon, so I’m used to performing under pressure,&uot; Jim Coy said.

The exact date the show will air was not available Thursday.