Dreyer’s interest in book leads to PBS documentary
Published 10:57 pm Saturday, January 19, 2008
NATCHEZ — It was a sentence in a book, in the second to last paragraph, that piqued David Dreyer’s curiosity. Ten years later, Dreyer’s search to answer questions left open in the book “A Prince Among Slaves,” by Terry Alford, led him to appear in a documentary that will air on PBS Feb. 4.
The book Dreyer read told the story of Abdul Rahman, a prince of the country Futa Jallon, now part of the Republic of Guinea, who was captured in slavery in 1788.
Dreyer, a local historian and Natchez resident, speaks passionately about the history of Rahman.
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Rahman was sold to Thomas Foster, who lived north of Natchez around in the area around Steam Plant Road.
Foster and Rahman were virtually the same age, Dreyer said, both about 26.
As the 1820s drew to a close, Rahman grew close with Andrew Marschalk, the first printer in Mississippi, whose office was on Wall Street and is currently marked by a historical marker.
As their friendship grew, Marschalk encouraged Rahman to try to contact his homeland.
The note that Rahman wrote eventually led to Rahman’s freedom.
Rahman then worked in Natchez to raise the $200 needed to free his wife Isabella.
Before Rahman could raise enough money to free all of his children, he boarded a ship to return home. He got as far as Liberia but fell ill and died.
For Dreyer, this is where the story left off until he met Artemus Gaye.
Rahman had been able to free two of his children, who returned to Liberia and met with their mother.
Dreyer’s initial interest was learning about Rahman’s descendants.
Gaye came from Liberia to study at Northwestern University in Chicago.
“He had been looking for the origins of his ancestor Simon,” Dreyer said. “Ironically he had not realized Simon’s father was Adbul Rahman whom a book had been written in 1977 by Terry Alford.”
Dreyer soon learned of Gaye’s visit.
“One of my friends sent me an issue of The Democrat with the article in it and I immediately contacted Mr. Gaye,” Dreyer said.
“He virtually… was the first person I ran into that I thought was a descendant,” Dreyer said. “He made me renew my efforts.”
From that, Dreyer and Gaye became friends, bonding through their interest in the history of Rahman.
In 2003 they had a festival to honor the 175th anniversary of the freedom of the prince.
Gaye brought with him a theater group, several professors, possible descendants of Rahman and two filmmakers, Dreyer said.
“(The filmmakers) came, they attended this event, we had a banquet and they were fascinated by what they thought was an ability to put together a documentary,” Dreyer said.
Most of the film was shot in Maryland but some of the last scenes were shot in Natchez, Dreyer said.
His involvement in the film is as a walk-on historian.
“I do appear as a talking head in several places in the film,” Dreyer said.
He said he was asked questions and interviewed.
“The used certain snippets of it,” Dreyer said.
He was also asked to review the script and to review the next to last version of the film.
The film ends with an event that brought together Dreyer, Gaye and other likely descendants of Rahman.
The film is narrated by rap star Mos Def and author Alford has an appearance.
Dreyer said it was exciting to be associated with such a distinguished historian.
Despite his accomplishments in research, Dreyer is not finished with the story of Abdul Rahman.
Rahman was known to possibly have four daughters, but their names were never mentioned.
Dreyer’s search to identify descendants continues as well.
“There are hundreds if not thousands of descendants,” Dreyer said. “We just don’t know who they are.”
Just more questions for Dreyer to find answers to.
The film, “Prince Among Slaves” was adapted from Terry Alford’s 1977 book, “Prince Among Slaves.”
The film was premiered summer 2007 in Cincinnati at the Freedom Center.
In 2007, the film was the co-winner for best documentary at the U.S. Black Film Festival in Los Angeles.
“Prince Among Slaves,” will premier of PBS. Check local listings as times may vary.