SALT LAKE CITY — Significant breakthroughs often seem to come when a person is at the point of giving up.
That was true for Regina Mason, who said she was ready to abandon her multiyear search for an alleged escaped slave ancestor named William Grimes when she finally found a critical piece of the puzzle.
For years, the Oakland, California, resident had skimmed through stacks of books on the topics of slavery, U.S. history, the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, looking for any reference to Grimes. She finally found what she needed in a basket of books ready to return to the library.
The new clue led her to a bookstore in Berkeley, California, where she bought all three available copies of a book in which Grimes had published his remarkable life history.
"I didn't even know if this man was related to me but there was just something that told me he was," Mason said.
Not only did Mason piece together her family line to Grimes, her third great-grandfather, but she republished his story and saw it made into a film.
The docudrama, "Gina's Journey: The Search for William Grimes," directed and produced by Sean Durant, will be featured during the African Heritage Social at RootsTech on Feb. 28, at the end of Black History month.
It's a story that Mason — a writer/author, historian, speaker, genealogist and filmmaker — looks forward to sharing at RootsTech.
"I am thrilled to come to RootsTech," Mason said in a phone interview with the Deseret News. "Everyone wants that sense of belonging and knowing their history. It’s a universal thing. Perseverance is the key. Some will have more success than others, but regardless, walking away with your heritage and knowing a bit more about who you are, there is nothing that can replace that joy and sense of being grounded. It's about leaving no stone unturned. You’ve got to stay with it, and more than that, you’ve go to share it."
Mason first became interested in family history as a fifth-grader in the early 1970s when she learned her ancestors were slaves.
"It began with slavery," she said. "It suddenly became upfront and personal in a way it had never been before."
But Mason's curiosity spiked when her aunt said a family member named Grimes was part of the Underground Railroad in New Haven, Connecticut. Mason had just learned about the Underground Railroad in school and begged for more information, but her aunt didn't have any more details.
"That one little thread of a story stayed with me for years," Mason said. "It wasn't until I was a young wife and mother of two girls in the 1990s that I began to see if there was any measure of truth to the story."
Taking up genealogy as a hobby, Mason had some early success with the first documents all family historians find, such as the U.S. census. It wasn't until years later when she pulled "The Underground Railroad," by Charles L. Blockson, from a basket of library books that she found her first reference to Grimes.
That reference cited another book, titled "Five Black Lives," by Arna Bontemps, in which Grimes described being owned by 10 different masters, brutal slave treatment and escaping as a stowaway on a vessel from Savannah, Georgia, to New York City. Grimes lived in Connecticut as a free man for nearly a decade before his former master found him and threatened to haul him south in chains unless Grimes sold all his property to buy his freedom, which Grimes did.
"His story did not read like any other autobiography that I had ever picked up," Mason said.
The autobiography contained one clue that helped Mason connect to Grimes — his wife, Clarissa Caesar. This was later confirmed when her aunt mentioned the existence of a family Bible with names, dates and other genealogical information.
"What? A Bible?" Mason said. "Why didn't you tell me about this before?"
About 15 years after she first learned about her ancestor, Mason partnered with William L. Andrews, a scholar who specialized in early African-American literature, to republish Grimes' story in "Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave" in 2008.
Shortly after the book was published, Durant met Mason at a family Fourth of July barbecue. Durant's wife is a cousin to Mason's husband, Brandon Mason. Durant marveled at the long lines at book signings and reaction by readers to Grimes' story. He read the book and with his background in directing music videos and movie production, he pitched the idea of turning Mason's journey to find Grimes into a docudrama. Mason agreed.
They created some public interest with a few teaser-trailers and tried to raise money through crowdfunding, but the progress was slow, Durant said.
"We didn't know what we were doing," Durant said. "We were going to make this big feature film. We were going to show it to Oprah. We had production meetings in Gina's apartment with spaghetti and cheesecake and laughed late into the night. This ragtag group of relatives had no money, no resources and we didn't know exactly how it was going to come together. I'm scared to death because I led all these people down this road. But we kept pushing."
The film's turning point came in 2014 when Durant decided to go "all in" and financed the entire film (about $500,000). They produced one-fourth of the film per year for the next four years, shooting on location in Los Angeles, North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Connecticut and the San Francisco Bay Area, Durant said.
"I wanted William Grimes' and Regina's stories to get out there so bad," Durant said. "I didn't want to disappoint Regina, my wife or any of these people. I pretty much sacrificed everything in my life for five years to make this film."
When the film premiered at a film festival two years ago, a sold-out crowed gave a thunderous standing ovation as the credits rolled. The film has since won awards at other film festivals, Durant said.
What makes the film so powerful is the message of perseverance, found in both Grimes' and Mason's accounts, Durant said.
"If what you're doing is worthwhile and important, if you never give up, if you trust in the people around you and have perseverance, people will help you along the way to achieve your goal," Durant said.
Mason believes that years of digging and learning about her ancestors have infused her with their best qualities.4 comments on this story
"I've learned from them what they passed along to me," she said. "I call them virtues that are in our DNA that we may not discover until we pick up genealogy, until we research our family history and see family members whose strengths and abilities are transformed to us in transformative ways. That's how this discovery of my family history has transformed my life."
If you go ...
What: RootsTech 2019 African Heritage Social, including screening of "Gina’s Journey: The Search for William Grimes" and Q&A with Regina Mason
When: Feb. 28, 5-8 p.m.
Where: Salt Palace Convention Center, South Foyer and Ballroom G, 100 S. West Temple
Notes: Included in RootsTech conference registration