By Jack Minch
Sentinel and Enterprise
LEOMINSTER — Actress Karyn Parsons, who played the character Hilary Banks opposite Will Smith on the NBC television show “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in the 1990s, appeared at the Boys & Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster on Tuesday to share an educational history program she developed.
Parsons left acting for a while after leaving the television show and started a family.
She formed the Sweet Blackberry Foundation to tell stories about African-American achievement that don’t make it into the history books in ways that make them interesting to children.
As a student, Parsons said she didn’t enjoy history because it was boring facts and dates. When she had children, she got involved in their education and wanted to help bring history to life for them.
She put in motion plans to create Sweet Blackberry.
Children can recite the Little Red Riding Hood story easily, so they can learn factual history if it’s presented as entertainment, Parsons said.
Years earlier, Parsons heard the story of Henry Box Brown from her mother, who was a librarian. She’d planned to write a book about it but decided to make Brown the subject of her first video.
Brown was a slave who mailed himself from a plantation in Richmond, Va., to Philadelphia in 1849 to gain his freedom. His story was narrated by Alfre Woodard.
“It was a 27-hour journey, curled up in a ball hoping not to die,” Parsons said.
The second video is “Garrett’s Gift,” about the inventor of the traffic signal, narrated by Queen Latifah.
Parson’s next project is about Janet Collins, the first black prima ballerina. Comedian and actor Chris Rock has agreed to narrate the video.
She is funding the video through crowdfunding with Kick Starter. Her goal was raising $75,000, and she raised $77,406.
Parsons’ visit to the Boys & Girl Club was underwritten by a group of donors that includes Tony Emerson, president and CEO of IC Federal Credit Union, who is vice chairman of the club’s board of directors.
Denise Seminoff, 16, a student at Leominster High School, enjoyed the presentation of the “Garrett’s Gift.”
“Pretty cool,” she said. “Helps bring history to life.”
Zach Martin, 14, a student at St. Bernard High School in Fitchburg, easily recited Garrett’s story afterward. Visual learning is a little easier than reading, he said.
“I think it was very interesting, actually, to know his parents knew he wasn’t a farmer or singer, and his mind was always thinking so they sent him to a school in the city so he could get smarter and do better in life,” said Zach, who is the son of the club’s executive director, Donata Martin.
Parsons said she didn’t realize at the time how much fun she was having on the set of “The Fresh Prince,” which aired from 1990 to 1996.
“We didn’t realize what we were doing,” Parsons said. “We had so much fun.”
The cast liked each other and hung out with each other on the set but also on weekends, she said.
“We had a really good thing, but we weren’t aware how successful it was and how it was coming across because we weren’t that big,” Parsons said.
People would tell them how unique their relationships were, but they didn’t realize it until they moved on to other projects, she said.
The show didn’t crack the top 10, but when it went into syndication, its popularity blossomed.