‘Family Pictures USA’ explores shared history through treasured photographs

“Family Pictures USA,” a new three-part PBS series created and hosted by filmmaker and photographer Thomas Allen Harris, explores American cities, towns and rural communities through the lens of the family photo album, unearthing rich personal stories that expand our understanding of our shared history, diversity and common values. Family photos of everyday milestones — marriage, childhood, a new car, a growing business — provide a visual portal through which to examine the roots, surprising connections and provocative parallels that shed light on our collective past and our shared future. From the streets of Detroit to the shores of Southwest Florida to the farm fields of North Carolina, participants introduce ancestors, parents and old friends — fascinating characters brought to life through a treasure trove of images and stories handed down through generations. Produced in partnership with Detroit Public Television, UNC-TV Public Media North Carolina and WGCU Public Media, “Family Pictures USA” premieres Monday, Aug. 12, at 8 p.m. and Tuesday, Aug. 13, at 7 p.m.

Each episode of “Family Pictures USA” begins at a community photo-sharing event, where people present images long stored in photo albums or stashed away in dusty boxes. Using these pictures as a starting point, Thomas engages participants in conversation, guiding them through stories of hardship, perseverance and love. The series then goes on location in their communities to expand these family narratives into a deeply personal people’s history of the region.

“For the past 150 years, families have used the photo album to pass on their stories from one generation to the next,” said Harris. “The family album has kept us together. But in today’s digital age, we have to work harder to keep and maintain the stories of our families and our communities. Everyone is a photographer, but the stories and communities behind our photos are being lost. “Family Pictures USA” strives to keep these stories alive and – by sharing them – remind us of our common roots and strengthen connections with our friends, families and neighbors.”

“North Carolina” – Monday, Aug. 12, at 8 p.m.

With an economy founded on tobacco and textiles, North Carolina is a historically rural state that is changing rapidly. Through family photos, we learn how tobacco money transformed Durham from a sleepy small town into a prosperous city with a thriving African American middle class and a financial district known as “Black Wall Street.” Outside of Burlington, the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation have repurchased ancestral lands to serve as a legacy for their children and a cultural and educational gathering place for the tribe. Families long separated by race and class are finding healing through recognizing their kinship as black and white descendants from the same ancestors. And a sign of the new North Carolina is found in a church headed by a Korean American pastor whose mission is to help integrate the region’s latest immigrants into the community. Watch online.

“Detroit” – Tuesday, Aug. 12, at 7 p.m.

In America’s comeback city, Detroit, the series introduces descendants of both Native Americans and slaves whose ancestors helped build the city. Thomas visits the oldest hat store in the U.S. and learns about a border wall paid for by the U.S. government that was constructed to separate black and white neighborhoods. One of America’s most prosperous cities in 1960, Detroit’s rise and fall and rise again is revealed through personal photos and stories of the city’s proud inhabitants. The enormous influence of the auto industry, the rise of labor unions, cultural touchstones like the Motown sound, the devastating impacts of the 1967 riots and the city’s renaissance today are all explored via family narratives and memories, expanding our understanding of Detroit and its multilayered story. Watch online.

“Southwest Florida” – Tuesday, Aug. 12, at 8 p.m.

“Family Pictures USA” also visits Fort Myers and the Paradise Coast of Southwest Florida, a tropical region that stretches from Caloosahatchee River to the Everglades, where Native Americans, cattle ranchers, members of fishing communities and restaurateurs recount their family stories with pride. In rural Immokalee, we learn that Florida is still cattle country and meet former migrant workers who now own the companies that harvest produce. Descendants of Seminole leader Osceola preserve their tribal way of life and pass down centuries-old traditions to their children. An African American family confronts the divisions of the past and moves forward as they uncover the story of their pioneering bi-racial ancestor and meet their white relatives. And in a surprise twist, a couple who successfully saved Estero Bay and formed the state’s first aquatic preserve meet the woman whose father tried to develop it. Watch online.

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