The story of former slave Reuben Shipley has gained a lot of notoriety over the past several months — the hardships, the fight for freedom, the land donation to help establish Mount Union Cemetery.
Here in Philomath in just the past year alone, a bronze plaque was erected at his grave site and a special historical marker went up at Newton Creek Park. Shipley’s story has been more widely recognized through the efforts of several organizations, news stories and individuals who want the man to be remembered for his multifaceted impacts.
But there are no photos of Reuben Shipley. He exists only through the words of others who have tried to paint a picture of an extraordinary man’s life.
Now, through the work of Philomath-based King’s Glory Productions, a 14-minute video attempts to provide a new and deeper connection to the man who was Reuben Shipley. The video, entitled “The Journey: Reuben Shipley’s Story” can now be viewed online.
“With the nature of this video and how there’s no photos of Reuben and there’s no faces in the video, I really hope people can still see him,” King’s Glory owner Aaron Alston said. “One thing I hope that is really conveyed for people is that we’re telling the story of this person who was real and I hope that people can identify with him and can learn things from him and that it’s not just a name that’s been floated around.”
One image that exists shows the old Plymouth community cabin where Shipley once lived with his family. The black-and-white photograph appears seconds into the video. Said Alston, “That cabin was the representation of this hope and new life for him.”
Alston provides narration for the video from a script primarily put together by his associate, Tyler McHuron-Guss. It takes viewers from Missouri, over the Oregon Trail and to the Willamette Valley with insight on the successes and tragedies in his life.
Former Philomath Mayor Eric Niemann, who has taken a special interest in sharing Shipley’s story, pitched the project to King’s Glory Productions. Alston said Niemann and Ben and Diane Beddingfield funded the project.
“We’re always thrilled to work with Eric because he loves to tell stories that matter and that’s a big part of what we do and what we’re excited to do,” Alston said.
Alston said Niemann had inquired several months ago about King’s Glory Productions filming the Shipley Family Homestead Historical Marker dedication, which occurred last July, and included several high-profile speakers, including Zachary Stocks of Oregon Black Pioneers, Jason Dorsette of the Linn-Benton chapter of NAACP and others.
“We didn’t really have an idea then of what we would be doing with it,” Alston said about footage from the event. “He just knew this was going to be something important to capture and so we were thrilled to come out.”
“The Journey” includes various clips from the dedication event.
“We sat on the footage for a little bit and we touched base with Eric again,” Alston said, “and he was saying he’d really love to make a video for Black History Month (February) that just honors Reuben Shipley and his story and tells the story of his journey to freedom by crossing the Oregon Trail.”
Coming up with the final product took longer than anticipated with various challenges factored in, including a video project that took Alston to Kenya for a stretch.
“With the nature of the video and just how many people were involved, it was one of those videos that took longer — it premiered on the last day of Black History Month,” Alston said. “We were hoping for it to be earlier but I still think it’s going to be one of those videos that will be long lasting.”
McHuron-Guss, a 2020 Philomath High graduate, researched Shipley’s life and pieced together the man’s story. He avoided getting caught up in a dry, even boring presentation of history and facts. Instead, McHuron-Guss wanted to write a script that resonated with people emotionally.
“It was more about telling the story of this dad and what this dad did for his family, for his wife, for his children,” McHuron-Guss said. “And ultimately along the way, there’s tragedy there, and what does he end up doing in that tragedy. That’s what really resonates with me because I can project myself onto that.”
Shipley’s story includes his younger days as a slave in Missouri, a life that included a wife and two children, followed by his trip to Oregon with his owner and eventual freedom. With plans to purchase the freedom of his family back in Missouri, he received word that his wife had died and that his two sons were not for sale.
“Reuben Shipley went through some of the worst things anyone has ever had to go through both emotionally and physically,” McHuron-Guss said. “That was a very heavy weight while writing it. The first two weeks of making this video was just rewriting and writing script, trying to figure out what emotional points to put where and making sure that those emotional points hit because we care about this story very, very much and we want everybody else to care.”
King’s Glory Production’s video projects vary in length depending on what the client wants — some are finished in a month and others like the Shipley project take longer. Most of the work occurred over a two-month period in January and February with McHuron-Guss working on the script and then going through the editing process.
The video includes stock footage such as landscapes and thunderstorms to connect the visual dots but the focus revolves around the narration and elements that went into the script to make the story come alive, Alston said.
Said Alston, “I’m just really thrilled with the work that Tyler did on this job.”
Working on a project such as “The Journey” can have lasting impacts. McHuron-Guss took a lot away from the experience of understanding what Shipley had gone through for his family.
“For me personally, that’s how I really connected with it was the motif of it’s this dad and what he would do, this husband and what he would do for his family,” he said. “I think that’s one of the most inspiring things — never giving up.”
Despite the hardships, Shipley opted to live his life in a certain way — not hiding from the world after gaining his freedom but choosing generosity and community. Those are the things that Alston took from the project.
“The thing that really struck me about Reuben was the life that he had to go through and despite that life, he still chose perseverance and hope and generosity,” Alston said. “The way that he donated the land to become a cemetery on the basis that people of color could be buried there.”