Cemetery filming focuses on genealogy|[9/28/05]

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 28, 2005

A modest gray headstone rests at Cedar Hill with the inscription: James B. Lanier Dec. 7, 1857- Dec. 22, 1942.

Sixty-two years after his death, Lanier’s headstone was the focus of a camera Tuesday because his role in American history will be revealed in a documentary set to air on PBS in February.

“We want to make genealogy interesting,” said Leslie Farrell, executive producer of the four-part series for Kunhardt Productions of New York.

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Farrell said the show will focus on tracing the ancestry of eight prominent black Americans.

The twist is Lanier was white, and his famous African-American descendant, whom Farrell declined to identify, was born of an illicit relationship.

Farrell did say those profiled include a doctor, entertainer, prominent business people, a religious leader and a former astronaut.

“It’s a very famous and well renowned celebrity,” said Farrell of Lanier’s relative. “It’s someone you won’t expect.”

Farrell said she found the story of the Lanier family very interesting as she began tracing the family line.

Farrell said she has found documentation that shows Lanier had a relationship with a former slave before he married. The former slave was Cordillia Dixon and the relationship produced a child, Farrell said.

She also said Lanier’s father, Nedham B. Lanier, had loaned his plantation to the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

She said the show will focus on various events in American history, so having James Lanier related to one of the eight featured Americans and finding his father was involved in the Civil War will add an extra element of interest.

She said following real people and events through history brings the past to life.

“It makes American history very, very personal,” Farrell said. “You get hooked on it.”

Farrell said Lanier’s descendants from his marriage were surprised by the information uncovered by the crew, but have been open.

“No one said ‘We don’t want you to do that,'” Farrell said. “We hope they find it as fascinating as we do.”

Joseph Friedman, a camera operator for the project, said Mississippi is the fifth state the crew has visited in about eight days.