Detective Zuberi goes investigating history

Tukufu Zuberi

Photo courtesy PBS

Tukufu Zuberi already wears two hats at Penn: Professor of sociology and director of the Center for Africana Studies.

Now he’s added a third hat—the detective’s fedora.

Zuberi isn’t just any old detective, though. Starting in July, he and three comrades—Columbia Professor of Architecture Gwendolyn Wright and appraisers Wesley Cowan and Elyse Luray-Marx—will go sleuthing for the historical significance of artifacts, buildings and legends all across America in a new PBS series, “History Detectives.”

The show’s publicity describes it as “‘Antiques Roadshow’ meets ‘CSI.’” And that’s pretty accurate, according to Zuberi. “A person presents us with a question about a historical object or historical memory and we do an investigation to help situate it in the historical context.”

For example, there’s a tale told to Zuberi by a New Bedford, Mass., seafarer about an old boat he cares for. “When he was a child, his grandfather and father would discuss how escaped slaves would [serve on] whaling ships to avoid bounty hunters and being sold back into slavery. Was this true? And did it happen on this boat?”

Zuberi checked old records and came up with an answer. (You’ll have to watch the show to find out what it is.)

So why is a sociologist researching history for TV?

“All my work has a historical component to it and I include a historical context in the courses I teach,” he said. “For me, social structure is very important, but it’s easy to lose the meaning of the social structure if you ignore the individuals who make up those structures and the historical forces that influence and help shape those structures.”

For Zuberi, the program offers him a chance to do this on a one-on-one basis. “I thought it was a good opportunity to have conversations with everyday people about how their lives are important and how history plays an important part in their understanding of who they are.”

Zuberi also brought something else to the series. When we asked series producer Tony Tackaberry why Zuberi was chosen, he said, “Isn’t it obvious? He’s a fantastic personality, incredibly striking to listen to and look at, and he brings this incredible brain to a variety of stories.

“We want persons with the intellectual credentials to investigate weighty and serious topics, but with the charisma and personality to engage the viewer, and I think Zuberi does that.”

Zuberi enjoys working on the show. “It’s been great to meet people and talk to them about something they think is important and then answer questions about that thing,” Zuberi said.

And Tackaberry appreciates Zuberi’s good humor. “The thing that everyone [on the production crew] finds most amusing, given the Englishness of some of the producers and our unfamiliarity with U.S. weather, is that we sent our detectives to the coldest parts of the country at the coldest parts of the year.

“I think the worst was in Atlantic City,” where Zuberi researched the story of John Henry “Pop” Lloyd, a Negro League baseball player for whom the city’s new Little League stadium was named.

“We had an outdoor shoot the whole time,” Tackaberry continued. “He managed without any thermal underwear. He came across as basking in the sunshine. My hat’s off to him.”

The “History Detectives” are still looking for stories to investigate. If you think you have one, submit it online at www.pbs.org/historydetectives.

Originally published on April 17, 2003