Podcast explores how racism of Jim Crow era afflicted generations of journalist’s family 

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APM Studios

Lee Hawkins talks about family history with his cousin, Carl Davis, at The Legacy Sites in Montgomery, Ala.

A 10-episode podcast from journalist and author Lee Hawkins examines the intergenerational effects of Jim Crow–era segregation on Black Americans by telling the history of his own family. 

What Happened in Alabama?, produced in partnership with APM Studios, is a prelude to Hawkins’ forthcoming book Nobody’s Slave: How Uncovering My Family’s History Set Me Free. In advance of the podcast’s release in May, MPR News hosted an event that aimed to help listeners heal from trauma by exploring their own family histories. 

The limited-run podcast, the last to be distributed by APM Studios after its recent restructuring, runs through July. 

Hawkins, a former reporter, correspondent and host for the Wall Street Journal, began researching his family’s history after he experienced nightmares about his childhood in Minnesota that were similar to those of his father, who grew up in Alabama. Lee Hawkins later took a DNA test that helped him trace his family’s ancestry back to the 1600s. 

The narrative of What Happened in Alabama? focuses on family secrets that Hawkins and his father uncovered when they investigated a cover-up of the murder of Lee Hawkins’ great-grandfather, who was killed in a dispute over land ownership. The murder had a lasting impact on subsequent generations of Hawkins’ family. 

“A lot of times in the media, the way that Jim Crow is portrayed is … to look more at how Black people responded to the injustice, but not enough on the actual injustice and the actual system of apartheid that our families lived under for nearly 100 years after emancipation,” Hawkins said. “When I started to dig into family history, it was meant to be a multigenerational story about my family. But then it turned into something different when I started to think about how that multigenerational history impacted me in the way that I was raised.”

Hawkins took his DNA test in 2014. He and his father began recording interviews with other family members in 2015. After accumulating hundreds of interviews, including with experts on the Black American experience, Hawkins decided to write his book, which will be published by Harper Collins in January 2025.

During his research for the book and the podcast, several of the family members who shared their survival stories from the Jim Crow era died, Hawkins said. Their deaths affected the narrative of both projects. 

Research shows that people from marginalized groups live with so much stress that it can become chronic, Hawkins said. “If you have 18 years of stress, then by the time you’re an adult, cortisol has been in your system all those years,” he said. “That is why people die early.” Childhood trauma especially affects long-term health. 

People in Hawkins’ family “died directly as a result of their experience in Jim Crow as children, and how that wore on them and stalked them for the rest of their lives,” Hawkins added.

The narrative of What Happened in Alabama? aims to document an undertold story in public media and to enhance coverage of Black communities in Minnesota, said Joanne Griffith, CCO of APM Studios. “We’re really looking at how we meet people where they are,” Griffiths said of APM’s goal for the podcast to connect with new audiences. 

The podcast’s website includes resources for listeners to research their family ancestry and connect with mental health organizations that serve Black Americans. 

Last month, MPR News host Angela Davis interviewed Hawkins for North Star Journey Live, an event series that examines persistent racial disparities that affect Minnesota’s diverse communities under a framework of solutions that will enable them to thrive. Plans for additional community engagement include a trip to Alabama and outreach to community groups and organizers. 

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