Karyn Parsons grew up learning important stories of African American achievement from her mother, an activist and librarian in South Central Los Angeles.
As a result, not only did she embark on a successful acting career, becoming well known for her role as Hilary Banks on NBC’s long-running hit sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” but she also wound up creating a venture to share stories that empower children.
Parsons is the founder and president of Sweet Blackberry Foundation. She came up with the idea for the nonprofit while acting on “The Fresh Prince.” But it wasn’t until she was pregnant with her daughter Lana that she decided it was time to bring the idea to fruition.
“I started thinking a lot about my responsibility as a parent, about supplementing my child’s education,” Parsons told DiversityInc.
With the encouragement of her husband, she put a plan together. Since 2005, Sweet Blackberry has brought the stories of little known Black historic figures, Henry “Box” Brown, Janet Collins and Garrett Morgan, to the attention of young audiences across the country using the medium of short animated films.
Parson’s next project is writing and producing a short film on Bessie Coleman. A Kickstarter campaign for the project this month exceeded its $50,000 goal. The 20-minute film’s production will begin this fall, and a release date is scheduled for February 2018.
“I think Bessie Coleman has a fascinating story,” Parsons said. “Obviously her accomplishments are incredible and so ahead of her time.”
Coleman, born in 1892 to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, was the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license. When flying schools in the U.S. denied her entry she didn’t let that stop her. She taught herself French and then moved to France. Coleman earned her license from France’s Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation in only seven months.
“She came back with her international pilot’s license two years before Amelia Earhart would ever receive hers,” Parsons said. “We know about Amelia Earhart, we hear about her all the time, as well we should.
“However, [Coleman] was a Black woman who was really breaking ground.”
Parsons said a lot of people she spoke with about her project didn’t know of Coleman’s story.
“So many people had no idea who she was,” she said.
“But I was really surprised with this [fundraising] campaign — about how many people were responding to the story of Bessie Coleman, and what the mission of Sweet Blackberry is.”
Parsons said the bulk of the funds raised came from small donations by people who really believe in the project and have also spread the word about it.
“I was really touched by people pushing to get the message out themselves,” she said. “When you’re doing a campaign it can be really daunting and nerve racking. It’s nice when you’re hearing other people say that they’re getting excited and motivated.”
Voicing the Historic Stories
Well-known celebrities have lent their voices to Sweet Blackberry’s projects as narrators. Laurence Fishburne is set to narrate Coleman’s story.
“I’ve known Laurence Fishburne before I even did ‘The Fresh Prince,'” Parsons said.
“From the beginning, I’ve been wanting him to do [a project], because you know, who wouldn’t want Morpheus”
Alfre Woodard narrates Sweet Blackberry’s inaugural animated short, “The Journey of Henry ‘Box’ Brown,” based on the life an enslaved Black man who shipped himself to freedom in a wooden box. The film won a Parent’s Choice Award.
“I had actually worked with Alfre before, and got to know not just the actress, but the woman,” Parsons explained. “She is such a great lady.”
“When I was writing the Henry ‘Box’ Brown story, Alfre’s voice came into my head, narrating. And once she came, it never left. I reached out to her, and she said yes.”
“Garret’s Gift” is based on the life of inventor Garrett Morgan and the origins of his idea for the traffic light. Dana Owens, who is known as Queen Latifah, narrated the film.
“Actually, Will Smith was the one who said, ‘Dana needs to do one of these.’
“And I said, ‘It would be great if somebody could make that happen.’ So he called her, and she said, ‘I’ll do it. I’m in.'”
Chris Rock is the narrator for “Dancing in the Light: The Janet Collins Story.” Parsons, who worked with Rock in the past, said she reached out to him on Facebook and he agreed to come on board. Janet Collins’ story resonated with him because of his daughters, she said.
Collins was the first African American ballerina in the country to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House.
“She was asked to dance by the Russian ballet, which was unprecedented for a Black person,” Parsons said. “But they asked her to do it in white face, and she turned them down.”
Though Parsons has received support from her friends, she noted that Sweet Blackberry’s mission is important to them.
“I might know them or have an ‘in’ with them, but it’s what the project is about that they are responding to, and saying yes to,” she said.
Parsons, whose daughter is now 14 and son Nico is 10, noted that running a nonprofit isn’t always easy as the business has it highs and lows.
So she said “when you’re in a situation to choose whom you work with on a project,” it’s important to surround yourself with people who are supportive.
“In life, but it also goes for work and career, I think it’s really important to surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself,” Parsons said. “And who believe in you.”
Sweet Blackberry’s films are shown in school and libraries across the country and can be streamed on Netflix.