Community activist James Sleet knows where he came from, geographically. He grew up in downtown Lexington, where he was with the Congress of Racial Equality, one of the “Big Four” civil rights organizations, in the ’50s and ’60s.
But documentary filmmaker Eli Scarr, who met Sleet at the Northside branch of the Lexington Public Library, wanted to work with Sleet on where he was really from — his Kentucky roots, the place where the Sleet family began to really define itself.
What the two found is unveiled in Eli Scarr’s documentary, “My Ancestral Kentucky Home with James Sleet,” which will have its broadcast premiere on KET KY at 9 p.m. on Dec. 13.
The documentary style is similar to the TLC network’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” series which helps celebrities find their ancestors.
Sleet, a longtime Lexington community activist, is a descendant of the freed slaves who settled Sleettown, near the Perryville Battlefield. During the Civil War, the land had been used as a staging ground for the Confederate Army during the Battle of Perryville, the largest Civil War battle in Kentucky.
Over the course of the short film, Sleet, 76 visits Perryville during the annual Civil War re-enactment and visits what’s left of Sleettown — a single house in a patch of weeds.
Sleettown encompassed 96 acres and had a general store, eating places and a cemetery. The last resident left the town in 1931.
The town apparently drew Native Americans as well as freed slaves. The site of the former town is now within the Perryville Battlefield State Historic Site.
Although Sleettown is long gone, the Sleet influence in Perryville continues. Anne Sleet is the mayor of Perryville. Anne Sleet, a former nurse and caterer, became the first black mayor of the town in 2007.
Sleet said his grandfather left Sleettown one step ahead of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s.
“He had already decided how many of them were going down before him” and instead of finding himself outnumbered, moved to Lexington.
James Sleet grew up in the Lexington neighborhood of Smithtown, which ran between Fourth and Sixth Streets and Broadway and Jefferson Street.
Sleet’s mother scrubbed floors to put her children into private school. Sleet later joined the Army and was a dog trainer for dogs used to find cadavers and unexploded bombs.
He has also worked as a patient care advocate for an early version of managed care, for The Voice black newspaper, and as a truant officer and a security officer at Bryan Station High School. He was once the greeter at the Walmart on New Circle Road near Russell Cave.
Following a stroke and heart attack, he is now slowing down. His goal now is making sure that future generations don’t lose the photos, memories and artifacts of their ancestors.
“I’m a firm believer that ancestors ‘send’ you things,” Sleet said.
One example: One of Sleet’s grandsons passed a photo in the W.T. Young Library at the University of Kentucky of a 1968 event protesting the Chicago riots spurred by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and noticed his grandfather pictured among the protesters.
Scarr previously explored the life of black people in Lexington during the 1940s and 1950s with the 2013 documentary “Back in the Wings: Freddie Dunn’s Lexington.”
Dunn, who worked at the Phoenix Hotel and in construction for the IBM plant and the Chandler Medical Center, talked in the film about being backstage at the Lyric Theatre, sock hops at the Charles Young Center and athletic events at the Dunbar School.
Scarr and Sleet urge people to preserve their day-to-day history with photos and anecdotes shared with others. While it may not seem valuable now, they said, the routine of how people conducted their days at work and with their families, what they ate and how it was prepared, and what their homes were like will be invaluable information to future generations.
“These kinds of details can really show where you are,” Scarr said.
The men hope “that if people see the documentaries, maybe there’s a trunk of photos in someone’s attic” that tells a Kentucky story that no one has yet heard.
They’re eager to hear from them.
KET’s scheduled times for “My Ancestral Kentucky Home with James Sleet”:
▪ KETKY: 9 p.m. Dec. 13
▪ KETKY: 5 p.m. Dec. 26
▪ KET: 12:30 a.m. Dec. 29
▪ KETKY: 2:30 p.m. Dec. 30