Saturday, July 20, 2024

Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. stands among Cambridge Rindge & Latin School students Nov. 29, when they filmed a segment for his upcoming television show, “Finding Your Roots.” (Photo: Samuel Russell, Ark Media/Kunhardt McGee Productions/Inkwell Films)

Students were excited when Henry Louis Gates Jr. came to Cambridge Rindge & Latin School to film a segment for an upcoming television show, but they didn’t know he was impressed enough to plan a second trip.

“I was privileged to be part of it,” senior Naomi Tsegaye said, describing the Nov. 29 visit. “It was a great discussion.”

The PBS show, a 10-part series called “Finding Your Roots” that begins March 25, is described as an extension of the Harvard professor’s ongoing televised and print genealogy projects, including one done on Oprah Winfrey’s ancestry. In preparation for the new show, Gates came with a small crew to the high school to talk about slavery in the North, spending about two hours with some 20 students.

After Tsegaye spoke Tuesday as a student representative to the School Committee, there was more Gates news: It looks like he’s coming back for more.

“I’m not sure the students know this, but professor Gates was so impressed with our students that he has requested permission to film a second segment at the high school,” Carolyn Turk, the district’s deputy superintendent, told the committee Tuesday. “So CRLS will be certainly a very strong component of the PBS series.”

It was Turk who got the original Nov. 11 e-mail from producer Hazel Gurland saying Gates was “interested in working with a public high school and articulated that he was very much interested in Cambridge” and its diverse group of students. She began scrambling to clear the way for the visit in terms of logistics and the paperwork needed for the kids to be filmed. “When we were finally able to get all the permission slips, it was right down to the wire,” Turk said.

After that, all went well.

“We had a great time, and it was a great success. The students were great, and everyone was very helpful,” Gurland said by phone Wednesday.

The series brings on everyone from Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson to politicians such as Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, Democratic U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Condoleezza Rice to examine race and U.S history, Gurland said. The Cambridge school was brought in for an episode that talks to Hollywood couple Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, whose Revolutionary War-era relative is Theodore Sedgwick, who fought slavery in court and championed Elizabeth Freeman, whose case helped end slavery in Massachusetts (and is buried in the Sedgwick family plot). “Professor Gates was interested in finding out what students know about slavery, to see what kids were learning in school,” Gurland said. “It was an interesting scene.”

Gates’ involvement as a Cantabrigian has been limited, but with his pop culture efforts, his Harvard work and certainly with his July 2009 arrest (and subsequent “beer summit” with his arresting officer at the White House) he is one of Cambridge’s most famous residents.

“He’s a very notable individual, and our students understand that. But they have confidence and are very notable young people. They were insightful, articulate and certainly not shy. They had very strong opinions and ideas and were willing to share them,” Turk said. “So it really was an exchange, with everyone very engaged.”

As a results, Gurland has e-mailed back to let Turk know Gates is interested in a return engagement with a new bunch of kids and a different topic.

“We’re not sure exactly when,” Gurland said, but Gates “had a great time … it’s a fantastic opportunity.”