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

The Civil War begins in 1861, putting the millions of Southern slaves in an ultimatum: either to help serve the Confederacy or try to defect to the North. Over half a million of them do end up heading North, altering the course of the war and shifting its focus from that of the country’s unity to the issue of slavery. Gates talks about Robert Smalls, a slave who was pressed into serving on the Confederate ship Planter. On May 13th, 1862, Smalls led his fellow slaves in commandeering the sheep from the sleeping officers. He evades notice at the various Confederate checkpoints along the water by disguising himself as the captain. Smalls successfully makes its way to a Union blockade and delivers the ship and its complement of weapons to the Union forces, earning their trust and his freedom. On May 23rd, 1861, a trio of runaway slaves arrived at the Union-held Fort Monroe in Virginia and were taken before General Benjamin Butler, who refused to return the slaves to their master as per the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He circumvented the law by claiming that the men were “contraband,” seized as spoils of war since slaves were considered property under the law. His policy is put into law as the Contraband Act, and comes to be regarded as being essentially freedom for slaves in all but name only. This greatly increases the number of slaves attempting to run away to the North. Hundreds camp out around Fort Monroe and the North does not know how to handle them all; diseases break out among the camped slaves. Furthermore, some Northerners view them as a burden and resent their presence. Despite all this, slaves continue to pour in and they try to determine how to become truly free.

Gates visits the campus of Hampton University, one of the oldest African-American colleges in the United States. It was there that many “contraband” slaves made attempts to educate themselves and become literate. The school’s origins lay with schoolteacher Mary Peake, an educated woman of color who had taught slaves in secret for years, but became capable of doing so publicly under the auspices of the Union. The contraband slaves were determined to learn, just as dedicated to “liberating the mind” as freeing themselves from bondage. Peake’s class grows quickly to over 900 students. By mid-1862, President Abraham Lincoln is concerned; the Union is losing the war, and he finds that he must now directly address the slave problem. Originally he had no interest in ending or altering slavery, but changed his mind due to a combination of military necessity and the growing moral outrage over the practice of slavery. In 1862 Lincoln begins to draft what would eventually become the Emancipation Proclamation, finding that the influx of refugee slaves can no longer be ignored. He shows the outline to his cabinet on September 22nd; planning to emancipate slaves during the war and encourage them to join forces with the Union. The final draft is issued to the nation on January 1st, 1863, announcing that slaves in rebel states would be “then, thenceforward, and forever free.” Although the Proclamation has no official legal binding, it nevertheless represents a major step in the eventual abolition of slavery. Slaves, however, still need to make the risky journey to the North themselves, and many do so at great risk to themselves and their families. The Proclamation also allows African-Americans to fight in the military, giving them a small amount of personal freedom.

Over 200,000 African-Americans enlist in the military during the course of the war. Gates visits the African-American Civil War Memorial in Washington D.C., commemorating these individuals. There are arguments at the time that African-Americans would be deficient soldiers due to various perceived mental or physical flaws. African-American soldiers are despised by Confederate forces; their official policy required that they be treated as slaves and returned to their masters, but Confederate troops would often disobey and commit atrocities against African-American troops. One example is the battle at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, when 255 African-American troops attempting to surrender were massacred by the Confederates. On September 29th, 1864, Union soldiers assemble in the small town of New Market Heights, Virginia, and General Butler commands African-American troops to lead the assault, motivating them with the memory of the Fort Pillow massacre. Despite the heavy losses, the determined troops take the position and establish inroads into Richmond, eventually taking that city as well. The war ends in April 1865; hundreds of thousands of lives are lost, and a sizeable portion of those losses are African-American.

As the Reconstruction era begins, the fate of Southern slaves remains uncertain. Their chief desire apart from freedom is the ability to own land and property of their own, exemplified by Edisto Island and its production of famous Sea Island cotton. It is during this time that the “forty acres and a mule” promise is formulated after a meeting in Savannah, Georgia between a group of African-American ministers and General William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. An old African-American Baptist minister named Garrison Frazier is the one who coins the phrase, asking for the ability to benefit from their own labor and not be tied to Southern landowners owing to the enduring prejudice against African-Americans. Sherman attempts to put the idea into practice, setting aside hundreds of thousands of acres of captured land to be distributed to former slave families in 40-acre increments. However, Lincoln is assassinated and succeeded by Andrew Johnson, who works to undo some of the Reconstruction efforts such as the “40 acres and a mule” policy.

One of the first major concerns of now-emancipated slaves is to reassemble families broken up by auctions and transfers of slaves. Newspapers become filled with want ads seeking information about displaced family members. Their freedom brings with it new choices and privileges, such as the ability to marry and to choose their places of worship. However, without land of their own, many former slaves are forced to go back to working on cotton plantations, some for their former masters who treated them unfairly and with scorn. Occasionally African-Americans manage to overcome these obstacles, such as Benjamin Montgomery, who purchased land in Mississippi from his former owner Joseph Davis, brother of former Confederacy President Jefferson Davis. Montgomery takes ownership of the land’s mansion and recruits other former slaves to work there. By 1870, Montgomery becomes one of the premiere cotton planters in Mississippi, surprisingly tolerated by the other Mississippian (largely white) planters. He works to keep himself out of the social landscape of the area, doing his best not to anger whites so that he can continue to profit from his plantation.

African-Americans soon come to realize that in order to protect and expand their newly-acquired freedom, they require political influence in the form of the right to vote. This proves to be concerning for politicians; Northern Republicans believe that this advent could unbalance political power in favor of their enemies, Southern Democrats. Other politicians see this as an opportunity to entrench their own position and congress passes the 14th Amendment, granting full citizenship to any person born in the United States regardless of race. The 15th Amendment soon follows, allowing African-American men the right to vote and giving rise to the first wave of African-American political officials. This includes Smalls, who is elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives. Over 2,000 African-Americans hold office between 1868 and 1876, and they take opportunities to transform the political and social landscape to a more stable form for their people. However, some whites in the South react violently to the rise of African-American politicians, and the 1870’s see a number of vicious attacks against African-American figures and supporters across the South. Public harassment and executions become commonplace, and Northern politicians reevaluate their support for African-Americans, not wishing to spark another major conflict with the South.

These tensions come to a head in 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes secures the presidency in a tight race by promising to remove the few thousand remaining federal troops from the South, symbolically cutting ties with African-Americans there. Whites begin to take back the political influence gained by African-Americans. Isaiah Montgomery, son of Benjamin Montgomery, loses his family’s land due to massive debts incurred in the weak post-Reconstruction economy. Isaiah responds by creating a self-sufficient settlement for African-Americans in a wilderness area of Mississippi, taking the form of a town called Mound Bayou. Isaiah founds the town under the belief that African-Americans can only survive in the South apart from whites, although whites generally leave them alone as the town’s foundation appeals to their notions of segregation of the races. He is forced to make difficult choices to maintain the community’s independence, such as voting in favor of literacy tests effectively preventing African-Americans from voting in Mississippi. This is an example of the compromises African-Americans have to make, often sacrificing freedom for safety.

On June 7th, 1892, New Orleans native Homer Plessy attempts to test the limits of the 14th Amendment by boarding a passenger car on a train reserved for whites. He is testing to see if he will be arrested and tried, afforded the equal protection under the law that he is entitled to. This is part of a conspiracy amongst African-American Republicans; Plessy is chosen because his unusually light complexion makes it difficult to distinguish his race, highlighting the absurdity of establishing a law based on racial lines. He is arrested, and his case eventually reaches the Supreme Court in the form of Plessy vs. Ferguson; the case does not have the desired effect, upholding the Louisiana segregation laws, deeming the notion of “separate but equal” treatment of the races as being just. African-Americans do their best to live and survive given the legal limitations imposed on them, hoping to one day regain the freedoms that they were originally promised.


  • DATE: 8:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 0:56:06
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 121904
  • 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
  • Jamila Wignot … Producer, Director
  • Leah R. Williams … 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
  • Daniel Redna … Animation
  • Stephen Robinson … Researcher
  • Donald Yacovone … Researcher
  • Marial Iglesias Yutset … Researcher
  • Keith Weldon Medley … Researcher
  • Jill Cowan … Researcher
  • Paul Taylor … Writer
  • Paul Brill … Music by
  • Wynton Marsalis … Music by
  • Elizabeth Ziman … Music by
  • Neil Cleary … Music by
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. … Host, Narrator
  • Bernard Powers Jr. … Interviewee
  • John Stauffer … Interviewee
  • Cassandra L. Newby-Alexander … Interviewee
  • Thavolia Glymph … Interviewee
  • Hari Jones … Interviewee
  • Kendra Field … Interviewee
  • Vincent Brown … Interviewee
  • Darryl R. Johnson Sr. … Interviewee
  • Keith M. Plessy … Interviewee
  • Benjamin Butler
  • Jefferson Davis
  • Joseph Davis
  • Garrison Frazier
  • Rutherford B. Hayes
  • Andrew Johnson
  • Abraham Lincoln
  • Benjamin Montgomery
  • Isaiah Montgomery
  • Mary Peake
  • Homer Plessy
  • William Tecumseh Sherman
  • Robert Smalls
  • Edwin M. Stanton
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