The Los Angeles Lakers legend's film, Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution, premieres on Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on the History Channel

By Jason Duaine Hahn
February 19, 2020 05:18 PM
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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Credit: Jai Lennard/History

Figures such as George Washington and John Adams are well-known for their roles during the American Revolutionary War, but NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is hoping to introduce the country to the lives of forgotten black figures who also played an integral part in this period of our history.

Abdul-Jabbar is the narrator of Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution, a new documentary premiering Wednesday on the History Channel. The film dives into the often-ignored stories of these heroes who helped the colonies break away from British rule and set the foundation of what would become the United States.

“Having the opportunity to understand what really happened during the American Revolution has a very galvanizing effect on you,” Abdul-Jabbar, also an executive producer of the documentary, tells PEOPLE.

“It makes you understand that this wonderful country that we call America would not exist if it had not been for the efforts of blacks,” he continues. “They were as patriotic and as crucial for the eventual success of the American Revolution as George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison.”

The former Los Angeles Lakers center says it’s important to tell the stories of these individuals of the past to show today’s generation of African Americans they belong in the country as much as anyone.

“This all has to do with the fact that black Americans are not seen as belonging here, and we do belong here,” Abdul-Jabbar, 72, says.

Peter Salem Shooting Major Pitcairn at Bunker Hill
Peter Salem Shooting Major Pitcairn at Bunker Hill by J.E. Taylor
| Credit: J.E. Taylor/Corbis via Getty

“We fought for this nation in the same way and by the same way as any other group,” Abdul-Jabbar continues. “And the whole idea why we’re not treated equally has to do with the fact that we’re not deserving of our citizenship. That we didn’t earn it. We absolutely earned it, and we have to change those attitudes because it leads to all the negatives that we’re trying to eliminate.”

Black Patriots primarily focuses on the lives of a writer, a double agent, a martyr and a soldier during the war. One of these people is Elizabeth Freeman, an enslaved woman who became the first female African American to successfully file a lawsuit for freedom in Massachusetts.

“She was promised her freedom and it was denied. She partitioned the State of Massachusetts, who supported her claim and granted her freedom,” Abdul-Jabbar says. “They respected her and accepted her as a citizen with full rights. But it’s something that we’ve had to fight for continually, every step of the way.”

When asked why he believes these stories have largely been left untold, Abdul-Jabbar says African Americans have been marginalized by those who have written history.

James Armistead
James Armistead, a black soldier who spied for the Americans, in, Yorktown, Virginia, 1781

“They don’t necessarily eliminate these stories, but they don’t give them the attention that they deserve,” he says. “They wanted to make it seem like the things that were important to our nation’s history had to do with Americans of European descent, and everything else is not really important, especially the contributions of people of color who made it possible for the American Revolution to succeed.”

The film also looks at the black soldiers who were recruited to fight on the British side under the guise that they would be granted their freedom. Though Britain lost the war, 3,000 black men, women and children were given their freedom and subsequently left for the West Indies, Nova Scotia and places in Canada. Many of them would later return to Africa.

Conversely, many slaves who fought against Britain were returned to slavery after the war was won.

Abdul-Jabbar hopes that all viewers, regardless of their race, will have a better appreciation for their fellow Americans after watching the film.

“After watching this segment on history, people will understand that they can make friends with people who don’t look like them,” he says. “We’re all Americans, and not all Americans look alike. But we all have the same commitment to what the Constitution is about. I think that is the unifying principle that will eventually prevail.”

Black Patriots airs Feb. 19 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on History.