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Discovering new histories: a sort-of, kind-of how to for storytellers

Posted on 1 March 2014

I’ve argued many times that the only reason there are so many interesting stories in the New Yorks and Londons of the world is they tend to have more storytellers. Start poking around anywhere and you’ll uncover something interesting.

Case in point: yesterday, I unveiled the story of Charles Sagar, an African-American actor and playwright from Chicago-turned-Prince George barber who fought back against the racist order to clean up N—–town (racial slur) in Prince George in the 1920s. This is, as far as I know, the most complete version of this story to be told despite the fact it happened nearly 100 years ago. So I thought it might be informative to share how I pieced it together:

Part one: The anecdote

Everyone hears these little anecdotes about the past that I’m coming to realize are just the tips to icebergs of fascinating tales. Last year I was speaking with a local history buff when he mentioned that in the 1920s there was apparently an African-American actor who ran a business in downtown Prince George. This intrigued me- how does a black American actor wind up in 1920s Prince George?- but it wasn’t much to go on. So I filed it away.

Part two: The hook

February is Black History Month. As it approached I realized it might be a good time to start trying to figure out who this actor was and get a little more about his life. I had no idea how much more information I would get, but if nothing else it would be a piece of history to go along with a current event so it was worth a shot.

Part three: The digging

I was directed to professor Jonathan Swainger at the University of Northern British Columbia, the man who had apparently uncovered this nugget.

Swainger first heard of Charles Sagar when a student of his was researching crime in Prince George in the ’20s. Specifically the student had uncovered a report from 1921 in which city council directed the police commissioners to crack down on crime, paying special attention to N—–town.

This floored me, just as it had floored the student and professor when they found it. First, that such a racist policy would have been enacted in Prince George in the ’20s, and second that there was enough of a black population in Prince George in the ’20s to even warrant such a racist policy.

Anyways, I talked to Swainger about what he knew, and he told me about the context of the time as well as what little he knew about Sagar, who had indeed been involved in the theatre community in the Chicago at the turn of the century.

Part four: even more digging

So I had more, but there were still lots of details to be filled. To start, I dove into a great resource: the Prince George Newspaper Digitization Project.

Seriously, I can’t stress how great this is. Decades of history preserved in a searchable online database. I’ve used it for stories about everything from churches to tennis courts to crime. It adds a lot of context to what you can do. I collected every story and mention I could find of Sagar to fill in more details of his life: when he arrived in Prince George, organizations he belonged to, the death of his wife, the day he left the city.

I’ve also used published and unpublished research papers from the university and the college in town, oral histories collected in databases, pamphlets stored away in people’s houses, and my growing collections of books about Prince George’s past. There’s all sorts of knowledge and context tucked away in these things, and they exist just about everywhere- they are a great tool when you’re on the hunt for stories.

NowI had all the information as I could find on Sagar’s time in Prince George, but I still wanted to know who was he before coming to Canada. So it was time for step five.

Part five: the Google

I know it seems odd to turn to the Google after turning to the library archives but we’re researching obscure local histories here- it makes sense. In fact, a Google search for “Charles Sagar” and even “Charles Sagar” + “Prince George” was pretty useless. But fortunately I had uncovered a few more keywords that I could add thanks to my newspaper searches, specifically the fact that the theatre Sagar had worked at in Chicago was called the Pekin. Once I started putting that in alongside his name I was able to find a few more research projects on African-American theatre that described a few of the productions he was involved in. Among them was one called “The Negro”, and that led me to Bethany Holmstrom, a U.S.-based professor who had written about this production on her blog.

Holmstrom knew nothing of Sagar’s life in Prince George but she did know a few things about his life in the United States. More importantly, she knew the context of his life and the sort of pioneering work being done around him.

Between Holmstrom and Swainger I had two people who could put together enough of a portrait of Sagar that I was able to produce a story about him, filling it out with my own research on Google Books and the library archives. You can listen to the result below:

Charles Sagar and N—–town, Prince George

Conclusion:

Not every story is going to follow these exact steps, but they are basically the same. Hear something intriguing about the past and start digging, using every resource at your disposal. Make contact with people who search for these historical stories professionally and can provide context and ideas for where to go next. Hunt through used book stores. Learn how to do deep dives in Google using different search terms and filtered results.

I’ve got about a dozen other bits of history that I’m hoping to delve into and I’m sure there’s more out there. The past is a fascinating place and helps us understand the current world and where we live better, and uncovering a long-forgotten story from the passage of time is incredibly rewarding.

Filed under: journalism, Prince George, radio

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There are messages everywhereIf you don't walk in random places you don't see stuff like thisOn the side of the old RCMP building in Prince George. #graffiti #cityofPGInteresting.#cityofPGMy office buddy is cuter than yours