‘Downton Abbey’ fans rejoiced in Julian Fellowes’ new historical drama ‘The Gilded Age’. Instead of early 20th century London, audiences are transported to the (truly new) New York of 1882, where aristocrats Agnes van Rhijn and Ada Brook reside.

Despite the different settings, “The Gilded Age” has much the same aspects as its predecessor: conflict between the paths of old and new, climbing the social ladder and, of course, the rich emotional narratives of the privileged class.

But “The Gilded Age” offers something “Downton Abbey” doesn’t, and it’s a piece of history rarely described or taught, but real and important all the same: the story of the black elite.

Young white woman Marian Brook (played by Louisa Jacobson) is surprised when she shows up at her new friend Peggy Scott (played by Denée Brown), hoping to give her a “gift” of old, used shoes. Marian quickly realizes the error of her bias. Her black friend, the daughter of wealthy and educated parents, living in an opulent house with her own staff, lacked for nothing. Certainly not worn out shoes.

This image of black excellence – where black men and women enjoy money and influence – rarely makes an appearance in film and television, and is usually an overlooked aspect of history. In an interview with The New York Times, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, history consultant for “The Gilded Age,” pointed out, “What does the average person know about elite black New York in the 1880s? The answer is very little or nothing.

As someone who grew up not even knowing Tulsa and Black Wall Street until well into their twenties, and still knowing very little beyond that, I have to agree.

Julian Fellowes aims to remedy this in his portrayal of the Scott family and considers it a duty of artistic integrity. In an interview with The Columbian, he shared, “I really wanted ‘The Gilded Age’ to be quintessentially American. And I didn’t think I could do that without having a black narrative and a black family alongside others. It didn’t seem right to me, actually.

And it looks like Fellowes did their due diligence, not just consulting Dunbar, but co-creating the series with black writer Sonja Warfield, as well as reading books like “Black Gotham,” which traces the author Carla Peterson’s family history in New York’s prosperous upper-class black communities. According to The Columbian, the character of Peggy is even inspired by several real-life trailblazers of the time, including Ida B. Wells (founder of the NAACP), Julia C. Collins (America’s first quoted published black author) and Susan McKinney Steward (New York’s first black female doctor).

Historical dramas featuring affluent, high-class black characters are so rare that even Broadway legend Audra McDonald, who plays Peggy’s mother, Donna Scott, was shocked to find her role didn’t “continue the tired old stereotype”.

On The Grio’s “Acting Up” podcast, McDonald shared how “people forget that during Reconstruction, with the constitutional amendments and emancipation and the end of slavery and giving black men the right to vote and o hold office, many former slaves became great very quickly. Black people had their own communities in Brooklyn and what was called “the Tenderloin” at the time. They needed businesses to serve their own communities, and that’s how you ended up with black pharmacists and dentists, doctors, funeral directors and lawyers and all that. We needed all of these things to serve our own communities – our own thriving communities, and there was a social structure that existed within that.

Once she read the script, McDonald was thrilled to illuminate this often hidden world, “with all its complexities and all its mess”.

Complex indeed. And interesting, to boot. As well as a truly amazing example of what can happen when empowering conversations about representation take place. I can only imagine how much more nuanced our understanding of history (black history, in particular) would be if families like the Scotts had been a regular part of the program. But thankfully, we have creators like Fellowes, who understand that historical fiction, when told authentically, can embody the spirit of those untold stories, shaping our minds and hearts here in the present.

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