Spotlight on: Mike Beaudet, CRRJ Affiliate and award-winning investigative journalist

Mike Beaudet, an Emmy award-winning investigative reporter at WCVB-TV Boston, knows how to tell a story.

That’s why, when CRRJ clinic student Tara Dunn (NUSL ’17) wanted to share her research on the 1947 killing of Henry “Peg” Gilbert, she approached Beaudet, professor of the practice at Northeastern’s School of Journalism.

“We are the storytellers that’s what we do,” said Beaudet, in a recent interview with CRRJ. “CRRJ has the content, we have the storytelling skills, so the more that we can collaborate, it’s going to be a better way to get these stories out to the world so that people appreciate them.”

Dunn’s collaboration with Beaudet in 2015 marked the start of a fruitful and ongoing partnership between CRRJ and the Journalism School, spanning almost a decade.

Arguably the most successful project to come from this collaboration, “The Lynching of Henry ‘Peg’ Gilbert,” a short documentary film about Gilbert’s murder and the impact of his death on his family and wider community, has aired on television stations across the country and been streamed by millions since its release on Hulu in 2020.

But this multi-year project began with Dunn’s research.

Gilbert, 42, was a prosperous farmer and church deacon. He was arrested for allegedly harboring a man named Gus Davidson who was accused of killing a white farmer. Four days after his arrest, Henry Gilbert was found dead at the Harris County jail in the city of Hamilton, Georgia. His bones were broken, his skull shattered, and he suffered five gunshot wounds.

Police Chief W. H. Buchanan claimed Gilbert attacked him while in custody and that the police chief had fired shots in self-defense.

At the time of his murder, Gilbert had no criminal record and was married with four daughters. It was rumored that his white neighbors were jealous of Gilbert’s success because he was a self-made leader. He owned a smokehouse, had sizable fields, had built an elegant home on his property, and supported self-sufficiency for African Americans.

No charges were ever brought against Chief Buchanan. The Gilbert family farm went on the auction block and his daughters were separated to be raised by relatives. Henry Gilbert’s wife eventually moved to Detroit with one of her four girls.

To shed light on this horrific miscarriage of justice, Beaudet identified a filmmaking team and turned to Jonathan Kaufman, Director of Northeastern’s Journalism School, to secure funding for the production of a short documentary about Gilbert’s story.  

Many versions of the film were produced between 2015 and 2017 by students who worked on the project while completing their studies, but none that were quite “ready for prime time” said Beaudet.

“It was a challenge, this project. We had all this content and wanted to find someone who could come in and really make it their passion project,” he said.

Watch "The Lynching of Henry 'Peg' Gilbert"

Then in 2017, Zach Ben-Amots, a talented journalism graduate student and experienced filmmaker, entered the frame.

Ben-Amots “jumped in immediately” said Beaudet, collecting more interviews, developing the film’s story-arc, even travelling with CRRJ Director Professor Burnham to Atlanta, GA to gather more footage. He made significant progress before graduating in 2019.

Just when it seemed that the project would again stall, “in typical Margaret fashion,” said Beaudet, Burnham urged him to wrap-up the project.

“She’s a force,” said Beaudet. “She gets stuff done.”

With added motivation from Burnham, Beaudet brought Ben-Amots back onto the project and they continued developing the film. Then 2020 hit.

Between the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, Beaudet said he was brainstorming with Ben-Amots when they thought:

Wow this is such an opportunity to take this historic story, to take this important story that the law students uncovered and tie it to modern events.”

The pair began weaving Gilbert’s story with the racial justice protests happening across the country in 2020. “All credit to Zach,” said Beaudet, “it was his baby.”

After successfully pitching the film to Ben-Amots’ bosses at television station ABC7 Chicago, a subsidiary of ABC Disney, which owns Hulu, “all these stars suddenly aligned,” said Beaudet.

In the fall of 2020, Hulu was a little-known streaming platform, searching for local affiliates to partner with for content.  

Streaming on Hulu, the film received an audience “we just couldn’t have imagined,” said Beaudet. “It wasn’t shown at a film festival but was suddenly in people’s homes at the perfect time, when people were really craving that kind of story.”

The film first aired on ABC Chicago in fall 2020, then on Hulu in winter of that same year, before landing at Beaudet’s home station, WCVB-TV.

“It was nice to see something that took a lot of effort, a lot of time, a lot of students cycling in and out, to get this project over the finish line in a really impressive way,” said Beaudet. “It felt like the journey was supposed to happen this way, the timing worked out, even though it took five years, this was the way it was supposed to play out.”

Since the release of the Gilbert documentary, Beaudet said more CRRJ students have approached him, looking to continue their case investigations outside of the clinic. None to-date have matched the successful reception of the Gilbert documentary.

“The problem that we’ve run into is funding,” he said. Money is needed to pay for student travel to gather film, as well as production costs, Beaudet said.

 

You need the perfect student team and you need the funding to be able to go to where the story is. It’s a struggle.

 

Read more about Gilbert’s death on the Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive

About the Archive

The Burnham-Nobles Digital Archive houses case files and documents for more than 1,000 cases of racial homicides in the Jim Crow South. Co-founded by Melissa Nobles, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Margaret Burnham, CRRJ director and professor of law at Northeastern, these uncovered stories highlight how violence affected lives, defined legal rights and shaped politics between 1930 and 1954.

Despite these challenges, Beaudet is hopeful that the partnership between CRRJ and the School of Journalism will continue to evolve.

“It’s been great to collaborate with the Law School, and exciting to see that interdisciplinary approach to it,” said Beaudet.

On his “wishlist of passion projects,” is an investigative journalism class dedicated to CRRJ cases, where students who have completed CRRJ’s training bring cases into the journalism classroom and explore ways of telling the victims’ stories using a range of multimedia techniques.

“It’s opened my eyes to the extent of what happened,” said Beaudet, about the personal impact of partnering with CRRJ. “You hear about lynching, and you know it’s a piece of history. But to see what all these families went through, it’s eye-opening, it’s emotional.”

For Beaudet, his work with CRRJ feels purposeful. “This project is helping families heal,” he said.

“It’s about helping communities heal, but it’s also about helping individuals heal and come to terms with what’s happened. It’s such a rich collection of personal, tragic stories that are more relevant today than ever.”

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