When you walk onto the set of the PBS series Mercy Street, you immediately feel as if you’ve just gone back in time. From the horse-drawn carriages to the extras walking around in garb from another time period, it’s clear to see that PBS has taken meticulous pride in making sure its Civil War hospital drama is historically accurate not only visually but also historically.
If you’re not familiar with Mercy Street, the show recently ended its first season on PBS. And if you’re a period-drama buff, as with Downton Abbey you are immediately drawn into the characters as well as how their stories are so intricately woven together.
Mercy Street is set during the Civil War and is based on true events. The series follows two volunteer nurses from opposing sides who work at the Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Va. Alexandria was the central melting pot of the region, filled with civilians, female volunteers, doctors, wounded soldiers from both sides, free blacks, enslaved and contraband. With season 2 already in production, the series will take a deeper look at the contraband, a Civil War subject that’s rarely discussed.
To help the series with historical accuracy, PBS has adviser Audrey Davis on the set. Davis has been the director of the Alexandria Black History Museum for the last 20 years and is also a descendant of contraband slaves.
“‘The contraband’ was the term used by Gen. Benjamin Franklin Butler to give asylum to free slaves of Confederate masters who were looking for asylum. He decided to keep them and use their labor for the Union cause. He knew that if he sent them back, their labor would be used for the Confederate cause. This action paved the way for the Emancipation Act,” Davis told The Root.
A large portion of Davis’ career has involved telling the story of the men, women and children who were contraband and fled to Alexandria seeking freedom. Davis noted that even in the present day, there can be a correlation made between the contraband and those seeking refuge in the United States.
“If you understand the Civil War, you’ll understand where we are with race relations in our country. With the contraband story, it’s universal. It’s families seeking freedom and wanting a better life. The same stories in our contemporary papers about current refugees are the same stories that appeared in the 19th-century papers about the contraband. All you’re seeing is people who are willing to risk arm and limb to make a better life for them and their families, and that’s our universal American story,” Davis stated.
In the second season of Mercy Street, the contraband will be the focus as viewers delve into the lives of two characters from the first season and are introduced to a new character.
McKinley Belcher III’s character, Samuel, who was also in season 1, is a free black man, but in 1862 that meant he was commonly mistaken for a slave. But what differentiates Samuel from other free black men are the skills he picked up from the home of the white doctor he grew up in. It’s these skills that Samuel hopes to hone, but skills that he also has to keep a secret.
“I was really attracted to the strength that he has. And even in the Civil War, he has aspirations to be something the world at the time doesn’t expect him to be. He has this knowledge that he has to hide from people in order to adapt into his ‘role’ in the world,” Belcher said about his character.
In season 1, Samuel’s talents were almost found out. In the opening episode, Samuel treated a hemorrhaging soldier. The nurse attempted to stop Samuel from helping the soldier, but Samuel had a few words for her.
“This boy is saved by a n—ga,” Samuel said, “or he dies alone.” He then saved the soldier from dying.
In the second season, we get to see not only Samuel’s growth but also his resiliency.
“One of the things I’m most excited about the character is the element of danger. I think this season he’ll open up and share what he knows with a lot more people. He’s not allowed to step into who he really is, just because he’s a black person,” Belcher stated.
Belcher also drew a connection between what people went through during the Civil War and present-day issues.
“It reflects our world and a lot of the fearmongering that exists in current politics; it’s rooted back to that time. The fact that people are so afraid of ‘the other’ is very present in this show. It’s unpacking that and what it’s rooted in and how it still affects our society,” Belcher said.
The second season will also delve more into the life of Tony Award-winning actress L. Scott Caldwell’s character, Belinda.
Belinda is a recently freed former slave who is a servant in the wealthy Green family’s home in Alexandria in the early years of the Civil War. Although the Green family offered Belinda freedom, she chose to stay, out of loyalty.
Caldwell explained to The Root the intricacies involved in Belinda’s life.
“Belinda is based on a real character, as are the Greens. In the story, Belinda has been with Jane Green since she was a little girl. So I belonged to Jane Green’s family. When Jane marries, I’m given to Jane as a gift. In essence, Belinda has been with her from the beginning,” Caldwell said of her character.
“When Belinda is emancipated, she didn’t get her freedom from the Green family. When the Union Army comes in and takes control, that is when a number of slaves are freed from different plantations,” Caldwell continued.
But now, in the second season, Belinda is truly free but is at a crossroads. Does she stay with the Greens or does she go?
“We find her in a place with nowhere to go. Belinda has a roof over her head and three squares a day. But what Belinda hears from the outside is that a lot of former slaves are dying on the streets. To layer onto that, there’s no indication that Belinda has any family, even though it was indicated in season 1 that her brother was sold at the auction. But in her mind she hasn’t gotten to that point yet,” Caldwell explained.
Caldwell, who received a Tony for 1988’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, is also widely remembered as Rose from Lost. Caldwell explained the extensive studying she did in preparation for her role in Mercy Street.
“I watched every movie from the period that there was. Every slave movie. Everything current, from 12 Years a Slave to the Roots saga. I found quite a few small movies, even one with Dionne Warwick from 1969 with Ossie Davis. I also tried to hear the sounds. A lot of the original recordings of slaves have been digitally mastered. I wanted to be in the right place with my speaking and dialect. I wanted to make sure that I’m not doing the stereotype but being authentic,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell also spoke about the remaining effects of slavery and the Civil War on people today.
“I would say that by watching Mercy Street, you’re immediately struck with that fact that this is our legacy. You see that things have changed, but you still see the impact of the Civil War. Those scars on the back of our men and those babies lost, there’s an impact. Families being separated then and families being separated now. All of those issues are still impacting the black community,” Caldwell stated.
Joining Belcher and Caldwell this season is another actress known for her presence on Broadway. Patina Miller, who won a Tony Award in 2013 for Pippin, will play Charlotte Jenkins, a former slave who escaped to freedom in the North. Miller’s character is based on both Harriet Jacobs and Harriet Tubman.
“What attracted me to the character was the story of having this woman who escaped slavery 10 years prior … have the strong will to come back and fight for others. She wants the people to know once they escape slavery, they would have to learn things like reading and how to get along in the world,” Miller said about Charlotte.
Miller also did a lot of prep work before taking on the role.
“I looked at a lot of slave narratives. I read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs. I also did a lot of reading about the contraband, because not a lot of people know the history. I grew up in the South and I loved history, but it’s a part of history that was looked over a little bit. I love that the show is bringing this to light,” Miller stated.
During the scene that was being filmed on the set of Mercy Street in May, when The Root was on the set, Caldwell’s, Miller’s and Belcher’s characters were helping a white soldier who didn’t want to be helped by “n—gas.” What viewers will bear witness to in the next season are these three talented actors performing in a groundbreaking series that sheds light on a subject not often discussed when it comes to the Civil War and slave narratives. The true life story of the contraband will finally be told. And the fact that these award-winning actors are a part of it makes it that much better.