Scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s latest exploration of Black history and culture, the two-part public television documentary “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” features a Who’s Who of Black pastors, musicians and celebrities.
His interviewees include Pastor T.D. Jakes, Oprah Winfrey, Pastor Shirley Caesar, Bishop Michael Curry, the Rev. William Barber II, John Legend, BeBe Winans, Yolanda Adams, U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock, Jennifer Hudson and more.
The “more” of that sentence includes Baylor University journalism professor Bob Darden, founder and director of Baylor’s Black Gospel Music Restoration Project, which also provided some of the music heard in the documentary.
“The Black Church,” which airs on most Public Broadcasting Service stations on Tuesday and Wednesday, is the latest work from Gates, whose previous work in public television includes the documentaries “The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross,” winner of a 2014 Emmy Award, “Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise,” “Reconstruction: America After the Civil War” as well as his genealogy series on PBS, “Finding Your Roots.”
In it, the Harvard professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, traces the history of the Black church from its early days as a refuge for enslaved people brought from Africa to the American colonies through its emergence and establishment as an enduring pillar of Black culture and heritage.
The four-hour series explores the church in its various roles as sanctuary, springboard for social justice and a cultural fount that has inspired and energized Black artistic expression for generations.
Gates’ research led him to Baylor’s Black gospel music center, whose creation Darden spearheaded more than 15 years ago to preserve recordings of Black gospel music from the 1940s to 1970s, which were disappearing over time. The project now counts more than 14,000 digitized and archived songs, albums, cassette and videocassette tapes, album covers, recording labels and sermons.
The scholar and his research team worked with BGMRP staffers on selections of gospel songs, spirituals, freedom songs and sermons held by the project that would help tell the documentary’s story. Gates also set up a Texas visit in August 2019 to interview Dallas bishop T.J. Jakes and Houston pastor Ralph West, adding Darden to his interview list.
The interview that followed not only flattered the Baylor professor, who says he’s been a fan of Gates’ work for years, but challenged him as well.
Gates talked with Darden about Black gospel music as well as recordings of Black pastors and preaching, an area that the BGMRP has moved into collecting over the last few years. “He just grilled me. I was on fire trying to stay with him,” Darden recalled. “It was just a glorious experience.”
Part of that interview, plus music from the Baylor collection, made it into the final cut and Darden was shown a 45-minute preview of the series’ second part, finding its combination of history, preaching and gospel music an inspiring mix. “It was thrilling. It was like a Ken Burns documentary, only on steroids,” he said.
Darden, currently researching and writing a biography of gospel music composer and performer Andraé Crouch, anticipates the Gates documentary will introduce a national audience to the work of the Baylor gospel music collection and, as with past national coverage in press and public radio, may bring even more historically valuable material to it.
“The Black Church” airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday on Austin PBS station KLRU, carried locally by Grande Communications and Spectrum cable television providers.