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“The Gilded Age”

A scene from “The Gilded Age.” The show, which depicts upper-class life in 1882 New York, often is distinguished by lavishly decorated sets and opulent costumes. (Courtesy of HBO)

How Rutgers Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar Helped Shape HBO’s Hit Series

By Donald H. Sanborn III

HBO’s popular period drama The Gilded Age depicts the late-19th century conflict between Manhattan’s old-money elite and the nouveau riche robber barons.

Created and written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, The Gilded Age also explores the Black elite, as well as the domestic workers who tend to the needs of the wealthy.

One of the central protagonists is Peggy Scott (portrayed by Denée Benton), an aspiring African American writer and journalist who works as a secretary for old-money socialite Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski). A story arc of the first season concerns Peggy’s stormy relationship with her father, successful pharmacist Arthur Scott (John Douglas Thompson); and her mother, Dorothy (Audra McDonald). Peggy also has an uneasy friendship with Agnes’ niece, the well-meaning but naïve Marian Brook (Louisa Jacobson).

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the Charles and Mary Beard Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University’s School of Arts and Sciences, is a co-executive producer of The Gilded Age. An article about Dunbar’s work on the series, published on the Rutgers website, notes that she “made sure the show — which debuted January 24 — also brought to life authentic characters of color who too often have been reduced to stereotypes or entirely overlooked in media portrayals of American history.”

“You can’t tell the story of The Gilded Age without thinking about, or examining, the Black elite,” Dunbar comments in The Black Elite, an HBO featurette for the series. “We have this generation of men and women who are born without enslavement as a reality. And so, as this new sort of generation of men and women come of age, communities of the Black elite develop. It was a moment of opportunity.”

Dunbar continues in the documentary, “When we think about a Peggy, a young woman who is educated, she is representative of this new generation of Black men and women who wrestle with ideas about injustice — who don’t accept those ideas as unchangeable … if we don’t show the story of Black triumph, of Black joy, alongside trials, tribulation, violence even — then we don’t have a complete picture.”

In addition to her work on The Gilded Age, Dunbar is the author of several books, including She Came to Slay: The Life and Times of Harriet Tubman (2019), Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge (2017), and A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City (2008). In 2011 she became the inaugural director of the Program in African American History at the Library Company of Philadelphia, and she has been the national director of the Association of Black Women Historians since 2019.

Newspaper publisher Timothy Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones, left) and journalist Peggy Scott (Denée Benton). (Courtesy of HBO)

“The Gilded Age”

In a phone interview with this writer, Dunbar explains that she got involved with The Gilded Age because, “In 2019 I was approached by the creative team. They were looking for someone to do some historical consulting for life in the 19th century — specifically, to think deeply about Black women’s lives in the 19th century. Knowing that there was a Black woman as a lead character, and that I’ve spent my entire life reading and writing about Black women in the 19th century, they reached out to me.”

She adds, “I originally came on as a historical consultant. Over time my role kind of grew and evolved … I was promoted a couple of times, but my final promotion was to the position of a co-executive producer on the show.”


Erica Armstrong Dunbar. (Photo by Whitney Thomas)

Of the series’ evolution since she became involved with it, Dunbar says, “The show changed in ways that were really important and impactful. There were a couple of things that allowed for that to happen — some that were not so good. Part of that had to do with the fact that the pandemic struck (in March of 2020), when the series was supposed to start filming. What that meant was that production halted. There was no production — not just for The Gilded Age, but for anything. It was six or seven months before we were able to begin shooting.”

Dunbar continues, “I think that time, and the work before it, gave us time to really think about authenticity, and to dive deeply, in a nuanced way, into the lives of the Black elite. From the beginning, when I met Julian Fellowes — the creator, writer, and executive producer of the show — he was very interested and committed to the idea of a Black storyline in the show. It’s very clear, at least to me and to many others, that you can’t do a show about the Gilded Age in New York, and not include the story of Black New Yorkers.”

She explains that, although she is not credited as part of the writing team, she works closely with the writers on storyline development. “That includes reading scripts; giving script notes; working with actors on their roles, on set, when we shoot; and working directly with directors and the other producers on the show. I’m a co-executive producer; it’s not just a historical consultant job. It became something much bigger, and something that’s been really rewarding.”

“For me, as a historian who’s spent my whole life focused on the lives of Black women, this is a way to access an audience that is immense,” Dunbar adds. “It was an opportunity to take who I am as a historian, and the work that I do, and to help present it in a way for larger audiences to know that the Black elite in the late 19th century existed.”

Dunbar is quick to emphasize, “This isn’t a documentary. There are true and factual aspects to the story, and it’s very important, for Julian, to be as factually correct as possible within the realm of a show that is a work of fiction. But it’s a way to help reshape the popular imagination about Black life at that time.”

A staunch exemplar of Manhattan’s old-money elite, Agnes van Rhijn (Christine Baranski) generally opposes change. But she respects aspiring journalist Peggy Scott for her determination in the face of prejudice, and hires her as a secretary. (Courtesy of HBO)

Characters and Their Historical Counterparts

Timothy Thomas Fortune (portrayed by Sullivan Jones), the newspaper publisher who commissions Peggy Scott to write articles, is a historical figure (1856-1928). He published The New York Age — one of the foremost African American newspapers of its time — and edited Booker T. Washington’s first autobiography, The Story of My Life and Work. In 1901 he moved to Red Bank, and his house is on both the National and New Jersey Register of Historic Places.

Other characters are loosely based on historical figures with another name, or else they are composites of multiple people.

“When I first met Julian, and we started talking about the world of the Black elite, he told me that he had read a book called Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City, which I knew very well,” Dunbar says.  The author of the 2012 book is Carla Peterson, a (now retired) professor at University of Maryland. “Basically, it was a book that chronicled a family history — Peterson’s own family.”

Dunbar points to Arthur Scott, Peggy’s father. “He is loosely based on one of the characters in Black Gotham, named Philip White. White was a well-known pharmacist, activist, and member of his community.”

Peggy is different. “She’s not rendered from one specific person in the 1880s,” Dunbar explains. “But when you see that Peggy is educated, that she’s an aspiring journalist, you can’t help but think about people like Ida B. Wells (1862-1931); or Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (1825-1911), who was writing around that time as well. There are a number of Black women writers who come to mind when we think about a person like Peggy.”

The same is true of Peggy’s mother, Dorothy. “She doesn’t come from one specific person in history,” Dunbar says. “We know that Arthur was born enslaved, and eventually he became free; that was not the case with Peggy’s mom, Dorothy. So we haven’t yet explained her storyline in the way that viewers want — I’ll just tell them to hold on and wait for it!”

Dunbar continues, “But I think she in many ways is emblematic of the earliest version of women from the 19th century Black women’s club. While in the early 1880s we don’t have a defined Black women’s club movement per se, although I can argue that throughout the 19th century there were always ‘club women,’ Dorothy’s definitely a part of that group of educated and political Black women who were attempting to move the needle in places like Brooklyn and Philadelphia.”

Journalist Peggy Scott (Denée Benton, left) with Miss Turner (Kelley Curran). (Courtesy of HBO)

Season Two

Timothy Thomas Fortune (1856-1928), one of the few historical figures who is portrayed in The Gilded Age. (Wikipedia)

In February HBO announced that The Gilded Age has been renewed for a second season. Asked whether she can drop any hints as to what viewers should expect, Dunbar replies, “Not many!” though she adds that filming has begun.

“What I will say is that in terms of thinking specifically about Peggy Scott and her family, we’ll continue to watch characters evolve,” says Dunbar. “The one thing that I am allowed to share is that we will meet Booker T. Washington. We also will spend some time thinking about some of the major issues that confronted Black Americans in the late 19th century.”

Asked what she particularly would like readers to know about her work on the show, she considers, “As a historian and as a scholar, it’s not typically expected to find someone like myself working for a major network with a hit television show. I think, I hope, that this kind of stretches what people imagine the work of scholars to be — that it broadens our work, and that it introduces what we do to the largest number of folks possible.”

She continues, “In terms of The Gilded Age, I just would like people to tune in; and to understand that the creative team, HBO, NBC/Universal, and all of our partners are committed to good storytelling. I think, honestly, that’s what is so important in making a good television show: you have to have important themes that are relatable.”

Dunbar sees a clear parallel between the lopsided distribution of wealth and power that is presented in the series, and the “gross disparity of wealth that plagues our nation today. In some ways, we watch The Gilded Age and we can trace some of the continuities, in a very small number of people having immense wealth, and the vast majority of people scraping to get by.”

Dorothy Scott (Audra McDonald, left) and her daughter, Peggy (Denée Benton). (Courtesy of HBO)

Media Depictions of African American History

Dunbar considers The Gilded Age in connection with representation of African Americans and their stories. “Ultimately, the work that I do … is about storytelling,” she explains. “It’s about telling stories, about Black people, that haven’t made it to the center of public imagination. When you think about the kinds of stories that we know of as historians … it reminds me that there’s so much work to be done. There’s so much room for us to tell more stories.”

Viewers whom Dunbar encounters often tell her that they love Peggy Scott and her story. “They want more, and they want a spinoff! It demonstrates that there’s a thirst for this kind of show, and these kinds of stories, in part because it’s different from the more traditional narrative of an 1882 sharecropper.”

Dunbar is quick to emphasize that that, too, is an “important story to tell. By no means am I suggesting that we’re done with that story, because how can you be? That was the vast majority of Black people, especially those living throughout the Southern states.”

Dunbar explains that she just feels that, right now, there is a bit more room in Hollywood to explore a broader, and less familiar, range of African American histories. She emphasizes, “That has everything to do with who’s sitting at the table — who’s giving permission to tell stories, to make features, to create television. The space is still very closed; but as the space opens, I see more opportunity.”

Newspaper publisher Timothy Thomas Fortune (Sullivan Jones, left) and journalist Peggy Scott (Denée Benton). (Courtesy of HBO)

Upcoming Projects

Asked about other projects, Dunbar replies, “Most of the multimedia work that I did before The Gilded Age usually was in the world of documentary projects — some of which before The Gilded Age — and then everything came to a close because of the pandemic.”

Projects in which Dunbar is involved include a feature for her book Never Caught; Ken Burns’ miniseries Benjamin Franklin (2022); and the series Who Do You Think You Are? For the latter, Dunbar helps celebrities, such as Laverne Cox and Regina King trace their ancestry. “I had the opportunity to work with some great actors,” she recalls.

The Gilded Age was my first television drama series,” Dunbar continues. “Right now, I’m working on a few other television projects. I can’t name them; some are in development. But I think this is the beginning of a new aspect of my career as a scholar and historian.”

She is hopeful that shows such as The Gilded Age are making the work of scholars and historians such as herself, “who spend decades studying African American life and history,” available to a large audience, some of whom are less likely to attend a scholarly conference.

“If I can find a way to share what I know, in ways that are understandable, then I think I’ve done something,” Dunbar concludes. “I write, I teach, and my days are full!”

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