A chance elevator ride with author Alex Haley in the 1980s changed retired high school history teacher Lawrence Broughton’s understanding of teaching, he said. Attending a conference at the Palmer House hotel at which the author of Roots: The Saga of an American family was speaking, Broughton, who now lives in Forest Park, tried to tell Haley how much the book had meant to him as a history teacher. 

“He missed his floor because he wanted to keep talking to me,” Broughton said. “He told me he had written [Roots] to honor his family and he gave me some advice for teaching about slavery,” Broughton said.

“[Haley] told me, if you’re a teacher and talk about our history, give [students] factual documents and talk to them as if they’re colorblind,” Broughton said.

“Let them look at the documentation for themselves. Let students read the slave narratives and make their own decisions,” Broughton said. “That was a big moment for me.”

Broughton, who is a director of the Historical Society of Forest Park, will speak about Roots and 12 Years a Slave at Centuries and Sleuths bookshop on Wednesday, Feb. 26. His talk will discuss Hollywood’s depiction of slavery in America. Broughton is a former commissioner of the Illinois Amistad Commission, a group that promotes education and awareness of slavery and the African slave trade in Illinois schools.

Broughton said he taught the slave narrative 12 Years a Slave as a book for many years in his social studies classes at Proviso East High School. The 1853 book was written before the Civil War as a memoir of Solomon Northup. Northup, a free carpenter and fiddle player from New York state, was kidnapped in Washington, DC and sold into slavery in Louisiana for 12 years. He was finally able to communicate with relatives and law enforcement agencies back home in New York and was rescued. He filed charges against those who kidnapped him, but was not successful in prosecuting them.

Broughton said the subject is inherently violent and was sometimes hard for students to comprehend. 

“I had, for the most part juniors and seniors, they were old enough to handle it,” he said. 

The 2013 film 12 Years a Slave won a Golden Globe and now is nominated for several Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress and others. British director Steve McQueen previously examined the 1981 Irish Republican Army hunger strike and soldiers in the Iraq war. 

Critics are comparing the impact and success of 12 Years to Schindler’s List. One critic said, “Compared to 12 Years a Slave, Roots is like The Care Bear Movie.”

Broughton said the power relationship between master and slave is hard for modern audiences to fathom.

“The ‘massa’ could do anything he wanted to do. The person who was in charge totally had control,” he said.

Broughton remembers at age 12 asking his great-grandmother, whose grandmother was a freed slave, about the family history. He asked why some relatives were “lighter skinned” than others. 

“She told me it has something to do with slavery, and she didn’t want to talk about it anymore.”

Broughton said like many people in America, white and black, his life was profoundly changed after reading Roots and watching the 1977 television mini-series starring LeVar Burton in the role of slave Kunta Kinte. It also starred some of Hollywood’s A-list actors such as Lloyd Bridges, Sandy Duncan and Edward Asner. Even O.J. Simpson had a role in the miniseries.

 Haley won a Pulitzer Prize for Roots. However, he was later challenged on its historical accuracy and sued by two authors who claimed he plagiarized parts of it. Haley admitted he used some passages from a 1967 novel, The African, by Harold Coulander in his work. Haley famously coined the word “faction” to describe Roots

But Haley’s novel filled an important place in the country’s understanding of the history of slavery and the story of those who descended from slaves, Broughton said. 

“The book outlines our ancestors’ sacrifice in a system they had no control over,” said Broughton, who was an educator for 37 years.

“You need to look at those who made the sacrifice so you could have the opportunities you have now,” he said.

Lawrence Broughton will give his interactive presentation at Centuries and Sleuths, 

7419 Madison St., Forest Park. The talk begins at 7 p.m.

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

3 replies on “Hollywood looks at U.S. slavery”