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Princess Of 'Fresh Prince' Brings History To Children

Hey, remember Hilary Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air?

She's back, but in a different light. Actress Karyn Parsons has started a new organization — Sweet Blackberry — that makes short, animated films about influential, yet lesser-known African-Americans.

She still loves acting, she told Kelly McEvers of Weekend All Things Considered, but her priorities have changed since she became a mom.

Parson says being pregnant with her daughter got her thinking about her responsibility, as a parent, to add to her kids' formal education.

"In school we learn about a handful of stories — great stories — but still, we're missing out on so much," Parsons says. "We want to celebrate black history but we don't want to separate it from American history."

Her animated movies have aired on HBO, and are available in libraries and DVD.

In the interview, Parsons talks about three interesting figures she discovered along the way, who are also the main characters in her shorts:

Henry "Box" Brown

It was her mom, a librarian who worked at the African-American resource center in South-Central Los Angeles, who introduced Parsons to Henry "Box" Brown.

Brown was a slave who had a pretty ingenious escape plan: He just mailed himself to Pennsylvania from Virginia in a box. The minute he crossed state lines, he was free.

All he had with him on his 26-hour journey was a bladder of water and a few small biscuits.

An eyewitness record from 1872 remembers the dramatic scene of his arrival in Philadelphia:

Rising up in the box, he reached out his hand, saying, "How do you do, gentlemen?" The little assemblage hardly knew what to think or do at the moment.

Garrett Morgan

A record of Garrett Morgan's traffic light patent submission at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Garrett Morgan / U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
U.S. Patent and Trademark Office
A record of Garrett Morgan's traffic light patent submission at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Garrett Morgan was an inventor, credited for the traffic signal and the gas mask among other things.

In Parsons' version of the story, Morgan starts off as a child.

"So, I wanted to come to where kids could actually be face-to-face, eye-to-eye with him and understand him a little bit" Parsons explains. "He was creative-minded but trying to find what he had to offer the world."

Morgan was the son of freed slaves and his formal education lasted only till sixth grade. But his mechanical genius helped him figure out inventive ways to realize his visions.

Janet Collins

Parsons has started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for her new cartoon venture. This one is about the first African-American prima ballerina Janet Collins.

At 15 years old, in 1922, the Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo invited Collins to join their dance troupe. It was unprecedented, but there was a catch — she would have to perform in whiteface. Collins refused, devastated. A 2003 obituary in the New York Times describes her reaction:

"I said no," she told Anna Kisselgoff in a 1974 interview in The Times. "I sat on the steps and I cried and cried." But the rejection spurred her, she said, to work even harder, hard enough to be an exception.

It paid off. She became the first black prima ballerina and soloist at the Metropolitan Opera, performing with names such as Katherine Dunham — often called the queen mother of black dance.

To tell Collins' story, the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air actress has pulled in Chris Rock as narrator.

"The fact that we don't know about her now is sad to me," Parsons says.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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