One in this documentary miniseries about the social and cultural history of African-Americans, hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

The American Revolution brings with it a number of ideas about freedom and equality, which are not shared amongst the African-American population. In 1781 in Sheffield, Massachusetts, one slave known as “Mumbette” is inspired by the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and runs away to the town of Stockbridge to file a civil suit against her masters, arguing that slavery itself was unconstitutional. Her suit proves to be successful, sparking movements towards abolitionism throughout the Northern states. Evangelical Christianity gains a foothold during this time and issues similar proclamations about all people being equal under God. One slave influenced by these movements was Richard Allen, who worked on a farm in Delaware. He attempted to appeal to his master’s religious sensibilities and convince him to embrace Evangelical ideas viewing slavery as a “mortal sin.” He was granted freedom and by 1786, Allen had become a priest himself, spreading the word of Evangelism to Philadelphia, then the largest city in the United States and a major center for abolitionism. Although the city was a haven for freed African-Americans, Allen soon came to realize that it would be quite difficult for African-Americans to achieve the equality they so desired. In the 1790’s racial segregation is instituted in church settings, much to Allen’s frustration. He organizes the first “sit-in,” having African-American congregants sit in pews reserved for white people, and he goes on to create the first African-American church in the United States, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This proved to be a major accomplishment in his time, proving that African-Americans could sustain their own religious organization.

Movements such as these create a national question as to the legitimacy of keeping slaves, and some Southern slave owners begin to free them, allowing them to create free African-American communities. However, the South is too dependent on slave labor to give it up, and legislation is created to make it more difficult for masters to free their slaves. On August 10th, 1800, a slave on the outskirts of Richmond, Virginia named Gabriel gathers other slaves to his cause, plotting a revolt. Gabriel, a blacksmith by trade, forges swords and plots to storm Richmond and kidnap its governor, hoping to use him as a bargaining chip to end slavery in the state by negotiation. A violent storm breaks out on the day the revolt is to take place and Gabriel’s master learns about his plan, and he is executed for his crimes. In 1781, Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin; not only does it revolutionize the face of American industry, it also changes the nature of slavery in the United States. The cotton gin makes the growth and production of cotton feasible whereas before it was not; the greater efficiency of the gin compared to manual labor creates a previously unimagined economic boom in the United States. The usefulness of cotton is spurred by a number of factors, such as the declining value of tobacco and the high demand for raw materials for Britain’s rapidly growing textile industry. This spurs a massive movement by the government to obtain land for cotton plantations, displacing countless Native American populations in the process. The increasingly massive cotton fields require more and more slaves to work, creating a market for slaves in the upper South to be sold to the Deep South, over a million in total. Chain gangs of slaves marching south become a common sight. This mass forced migration is known as the “second Middle Passage,” subjecting slaves to the same kinds of degradations and terrors they experienced in the initial journey from Africa. Slave families are separated by this process and thrown into “upheaval.”

Gates visits a cemetery occupied by the bodies of the Brown Fellowship Society, an organization of free African-American men in Charleston, South Carolina. They worked as professional craftsmen and tradesmen for white slave owners and even purchased slaves from them, partially due to the complexities of the laws surrounding slave ownership, particularly with regards to freedmen married to slave spouses. The extreme wealth of plantation owners allow them to affect the political scene, such as in Natchez, Mississippi at the dawn of the 19th Century. Natchez was home to “Forks of the Road,” one of the largest slave markets in the United States, earning a reputation as a “specialty market.” Plantation owners sought out female slaves as what essentially amounted to breeding stock to ensure the next generation of slaves, even resorting to forced pairings or rape to ensure this outcome. By the time of the Civil War, the slave population in the United States numbers over four million. Increased levels of brutality and violence are required to control slave populations, employing all manner of techniques and devices for the purpose of torture and the visitation of harm. There is a psychological component to the practice as well: the threat and fear of violence prove to be just as effective as the violence itself in keeping slaves in line.

On August 22nd, 1831, a bloody slave revolt occurs when several slaves murder a plantation owner and his family in Virginia, and they go on to kill other white families in their path. They are led by Nat Turner, a “self-styled prophet” who claims that he was given a divine command to kill his enemies; historians believe that on a more simple level he was simply unable to bear the indignities of slavery any longer. Turner’s revolt is eventually stopped by a local militia, but his actions have an impact on slaves across the nation, and on abolitionists in the North, also inspired by the rapidly waning slaveholding in the United Kingdom. Southern slave owners are deeply concerned about the maintenance of their business and launch a pro-slavery campaign, depicting images of a peaceful and mutually beneficial lifestyle. This also includes eugenicist propaganda about African-Americans being mentally inferior to white people and being somehow physically suited to slavery by nature. Even in the North, images of “grotesque” freed African-Americans abound in newspapers and magazines. These encourage an increase in racial violence, both in the North and the South, and this marks the beginning of segregation and restrictions of what freed African-Americans are allowed to do. African-American institutions and buildings frequently become targets of violence and arson.

However, free African-Americans are undeterred by the violence against them, and work to prove that they are the equals of any other American citizen. They form alliances with abolitionists in the North and start to aggressively campaign for an end to slavery. The published life story of former slave Frederick Douglass becomes one of the more influential works in supporting the cause of African-Americans. He is raised as a child by his grandmother before she is forced to leave him at a plantation to be transferred to another owner. He remains a slave until the age of 20, making numerous escape attempts along the way and eventually succeeding and ending up in the town of New Bedford, Massachusetts and its small freed African-American community. He becomes a dockworker and discovers a talent for public speaking, becoming an anti-slavery agitator. His voice proves to be invaluable to white abolitionists seeking a slave’s perspective to help galvanize support for their cause. In 1841, Douglass arrives in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he makes a speech to a crowd of both races, including prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who instantly hires him as a lecturer for an anti-slavery society. He travels the North on a speaking tour, representing a major advance in dispelling the conception of African-Americans as an inferior people. Slavery becomes a nationally discussed issue and a political fulcrum, and escape attempts by slaves in the south become increasingly common. It is during this time that the Underground Railroad is formed, partially a myth but partially a support network helping slaves to evade capture and reach their destinations. The loosely organized network ends up helping over 20,000 slaves escape.

In Odessa, Delaware, Gates visits one of the Underground Railroad’s few documented safehouses and learns the story of a slave who hid in a miniscule compartment to avoid being captured by a local sheriff. Southerners push for more aggressive legislation against runaway slaves and devise the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring Northerners to hand over anyone suspected of being a runaway slave. This creates an atmosphere of terror and paranoia in the North for many African-Americans as bounty hunters for escaped slaves become common. African-Americans escape to Niagara Falls in increasingly large numbers, as slavery was nonexistent in Canada and there were no legal restrictions on their activities or rights. Among them were Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad, who settled in the town of St. Catharines, which eventually becomes home to an entire community of people descended from escaped slaves. However, successful escapees via the Underground Railroad are atypical, and most slaves are not able to benefit from it.

In Covington, Kentucky in 1856, a slave named Margaret Garner and her family decides to make a break for freedom, as the town lies only a few miles from the northern border of the slave-holding states. They reach the Ohio River just before sunrise and prepare to cross into the free state of Ohio, finding the river completely frozen over. They reach the other side and are taken in by a free African-American, but are found by federal marshals soon thereafter. They take refuge in the house as the marshals batter their way in, and Garner decides to kill her daughter rather than return her to a life of slavery, and is caught before she can do the same to her other children. Garner is imprisoned and becomes a polarizing figure across the nation; pro-slavery figures claim that she proves their claims that African-Americans are “sub-human” and murderous, but anti-slavery figures argue that this incident serves only to highlight the monstrous injustice of human slavery. It is ruled by an Ohio court that Garner is legally property and cannot be tried for murder, and so she is returned to her master. On the way back she drops her infant daughter in the Ohio River to drown to death; she is viewed as a symbol of the brutal conditions pervading the United States at the time.


  • DATE: 8:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 0:56:06
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 121903
  • GENRE: Public affairs/Documentaries
  • SUBJECT HEADING: African-American Collection - News/Talk
  • SERIES RUN: PBS - TV miniseries, 2013


  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. … Executive Producer, Writer
  • Peter Kunhardt … Executive Producer
  • Dyllan McGee … Executive Producer
  • Julie Anderson … Executive Producer
  • Stephanie Carter … Coordinating Producer
  • Rachel Dretzin … Senior Producer
  • Leslie Asako Gladsjo … Senior Story Producer
  • Rebecca Brillheart … Supervising Producer
  • Timothy Messler … Supervising Producer
  • Sabin Streeter … Producer, Director
  • Talleah Bridges McMahon … Co-Producer
  • George Kunhardt … Co-Producer
  • Teddy Kunhardt … Co-Producer
  • Nicole Bozorgmir … Associate Producer
  • Jaime Sukonnik … Associate Producer
  • Stef Gordon … Line Producer
  • Christopher Chuang … Animation
  • Joe Posner … Animation
  • Jessica Hutchinson … Animation
  • Andy O'Donnell … Animation
  • Andy Cahill … Animation
  • Donald Yacovone … Researcher
  • Marial Iglesias Yutset … Researcher
  • Jill Cowan … Researcher
  • Paul Taylor … Writer
  • Paul Brill … Music by
  • Wynton Marsalis … Music by
  • Elizabeth Ziman … Music by
  • Neil Cleary … Music by
  • APM Music … Music by
  • 5 Alarm Music … Music by
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. … Host, Narrator
  • Vincent Brown … Interviewee
  • Richard Newman … Interviewee
  • Mark Kelly Tyler … Interviewee
  • Douglas R. Egerton … Interviewee
  • Steven Deyle … Interviewee
  • Daina Ramey Berry … Interviewee
  • Heather Andrea Williams … Interviewee
  • Bernard Powers Jr. … Interviewee
  • Darrell S. White … Interviewee
  • Vanessa M. Holden … Interviewee
  • David W. Blight … Interviewee
  • Thomas C. Holt … Interviewee
  • Kate Clifford Lawson … Interviewee
  • Thavolia Glymph … Interviewee
  • Rochelle Bush … Interviewee
  • Nikki Taylor … Interviewee
  • Richard Allen
  • Frederick Douglass
  • William Lloyd Garrison
  • Harriet Tubman
  • Nat Turner
  • Eli Whitney
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