Rider Student’s Documentary Series Explores Black Veterans of Two Wars
By Anne Levin
With a grandfather who is a veteran of the National Guard and two uncles who served in Vietnam, Danielle “Dani” Jackson has always felt a strong connection to American military history.
The Rider University junior is equally fascinated by film. The recipient of a $5,000 Undergraduate Research Scholar Award (URSA), Jackson has turned her two passions into an ambitious, 12-part documentary series that tells the stories of Black veterans of the two World Wars. “A Two-Front War” is her effort to raise awareness of their forgotten accomplishments while fighting abroad, and their efforts toward civil rights at home. A Kickstarter campaign has upped the budget to more than $8,000, allowing her to finalize the first episode of the series, which should be available in May.
“Many people don’t realize that African Americans have been in the American military since the Revolutionary War,” Jackson said. “Typically, we think it has been since the Civil War. African Americans are usually just portrayed as slaves. We show their bondage and their oppression. But I want to show their strength. I would like for these veterans to be remembered for the super soldiers they were.”
Rider chooses a small group of students each year for the research award, which promotes independent student research and scholarship. “I applied for the grant with my professor and adviser, Dr. Shawn Kildea, last year,” said Jackson. “Everyone else got a chance to write a paper. I decided to combine both my majors — history and film — into this project. African Americans kind of get a low blow when it comes to this history. I started working on it, and it just started picking up speed over the summer.”
The more they brainstormed, the more Jackson and her adviser realized the project had the potential to be more than a single episode. “The idea would be to first make a 24-minute program of high enough quality that could be brought to a Netflix, an Amazon, a Hulu, and pitch it as a series,” said Kildea.
A film buff since childhood, Jackson is thrilled to be working on the project. “When I was younger, I always had a thing for movies,” she said. “I would go to the library and rent as many as possible, like three in a weekend. I think films allowed me to process my emotions in ways I couldn’t do otherwise. I could be in a different world. They really helped open my eyes to what I wanted to do as a person, and to connecting with different people through art.”
A number of junior Rider film and television majors are also involved in the project, including executive producers Benjamin Ross and Patrick Konopka, production manager Sarah Waldron, assistant project manager Tiffany Hartman, and boom operator Andrew Jacabacci. Throughout the series, Jackson aims to stress that African American soldiers were expected to serve their country faithfully, despite not having the same rights as their white counterparts.
“They are carrying the burden of what they are experiencing here at home and they are going overseas and still fighting for a country that doesn’t love them,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of power that is, but I would like for people to recognize that that is a burden no other demographics have had to deal with.”
The first episode of “A Two-Front War” focuses on the lives of Charles Hamilton Houston and Medgar Evers.
Houston served as an officer in World War I. After returning from the war, he graduated from Harvard Law School and wrote foundational legislation for the civil rights movement, including the monumental Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954. Evers returned to his home state of Mississippi after serving as a sergeant in World War II and became an organizer for voter registration drives and boycotts. He also established new chapters of the NAACP in the deep South.
“These two subjects are amazing because you have Houston laying the groundwork legally, and then you have Evers picking up the groundwork for grassroots activism,” Jackson said. “I think that we’ve all seen with 2020, even going into 2021, there’s a lot of political dissension amongst America and amongst the world at the time in which African American voices are now being elevated. It’s important to include these veterans within the narrative, especially the veterans within the underrepresented populations. At a time in which we are having this platform, I would like to utilize it and give a stage to these men and women who have fought so valiantly over hundreds of years and finally get the honor they deserve.”
Jackson is considering plans for future projects. “My adviser and I are always talking,” she said. “I’m thinking about a narrative piece on African American women, maybe an adaptation of a novel. Or it could be a second episode of this project, focusing on African American women and their involvement in World War I and World War II. There is just so much to cover.”