Just shy of 17 years after its debut on New Jersey Network in 1998, an award-winning documentary depicting the life of African-Americans in Morris County during the 1920s is now available to a new audience at the click of a computer mouse.
“Chanceman’s Brothers and Sisters: the Origins of the 20th Century Morris County Black Community,” produced by Dr. Rita Heller, associate professor of history and political science at County College of Morris (CCM), can now be viewed at any time on the college’s YouTube channel.
Heller initiated the project with Dr. Gwen Dungy, the first black dean at the college. Heller, who served as executive producer, also worked with the late Dr. Clement Alexander Price, one of New Jersey’s most admired African-American historians and the documentary’s script writer. Price, who was named Newark’s city historian and founded the Rutgers Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience at Rutgers-Newark, described the film as “the first attempt to shed light on the internal logic of a New Jersey black community," according to Heller.
“When James ‘Chanceman’ Gregory, Morristown’s first black police officer, walked out on the beat in 1934 with his proud family watching from across South Street, he walked into history,” Heller said. “His story sent the production team’s imagination into fast forward. Gregory’s nickname would inspire our title, as well as our film’s themes.”
Gregory’s cousin, the late John Shaw Pinkman, who was Morristown’s historian, and three other individuals who experienced life in Morris County during the 1920s are featured in the film through interviews. The documentary is just less than 30 minutes in length and was pared down from 15 hours of interviews.
“The film looks at a pre-Civil Rights era community, generally invisible to the headlines,” Heller said. “We meet everyday people of extraordinary accomplishment: a caterer and town historian, a teacher, a war hero and a police officer. John Shaw Pinkman, Gwen Squire, Jesse Evans and Robert Bank demonstrated integrity, determination and wisdom. They and their neighbors made skillful detours around exclusion and bias, thereby building satisfying personal lives, as well as strengthening the larger Morris County community.”
The documentary was made possible through fundraising and donations, the largest of which were grants from the New Jersey Historical Commission, of $43,000, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, of $30,000.
The film now finds a new home and audience.
"YouTube is the midwife now giving ‘Chanceman’s Brothers and Sisters’ a new life and propelling its inspirational story worldwide,” Heller said.
Since its debut, the documentary has been available through the CCM Foundation office on VHS and DVD. The video was recently made available on YouTube by the CCM Media Center. It can be found at https://youtu.be/1e0ah8SMAVw.
# # #Photo 1: Cinematographer Robert Shepard captures John Shaw Pinkman in Pinkman’s Morristown home for the film “Chanceman’s Brothers and Sisters: the Origins of the 20th Century Morris County Black Community,” a documentary produced by Dr. Rita Heller, professor of history and political science at County College of Morris (CCM). The documentary originally aired in 1998, but is now available on the CCM YouTube channel.
Credit: Jim Del Giudice
Photo 2: A photo of James “Chanceman” Gregory, the first black police officer in Morristown. Gregory’s cousin, the late John Shaw Pinkman, who was Morristown’s historian, and three other individuals who experienced life in Morris County during the 1920s are featured through interviews in “Chanceman’s Brothers and Sisters: the Origins of the 20th Century Morris County Black Community.”
Credit: Courtesy of the Joint Free Public Library of Morristown and Morris Township