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

By the beginning of the 20th Century, over eight million African-Americans still live in the South, still enforcing brutal segregation laws. Many seek avenues to departing for other cities across the United States in the 1890’s, known as the Great Migration. The Jim Crow laws of the South work to enforce a subservient existence for African-Americans, and many attempt to escape such persecution; the laws create both legal restrictions and a “code of conduct” alienating African-Americans from society. Lynchings become increasingly commonplace as a means of enforcing the notion of “white supremacy” over the African-American population; the government cannot stop them and some are advertised as public events, even allowing visitors to walk away with “souvenirs” from the lynched persons’ body parts. One such lynching takes place in 1892 in Memphis, Tennessee, at a grocery store owned by an African-American, Thomas Moss, and his family. The store threatens a white competitor and so a mob attacks Moss; Moss and his friends defend themselves, injuring their attackers and being placed in jail. A lynch mob drags Moss and his friends from their cells and brings them to the edge of town, where he is brutally executed just after making a proclamation that African-Americans should head west, as “there is no justice for them here.” Moss’s story reaches a wide audience due to his friendship with African-American journalist Ida B. Wells, who writes excoriating editorials about the horrors of lynching and echoes Moss’s sentiments. Whites destroy her office in retaliation and throw her out of Memphis, threatening to lynch her if she returns.

The ensuing mass migration of African-Americans away from the South presents a problem for Southern industry, still largely dependent on their labor to work the agriculturally-based economy. Despite no longer being enslaved, the relationship between white landowners and their African-American workers is not changed considerably. Some African-American leaders, such as former slave Booker T. Washington, advocate staying in the South and trying to change it for the better through cooperation with white people. He argues that economic security is necessary for African-Americans to begin bargaining for their social and legal freedoms, and that to do this, African-Americans should become educated and learn trades. To that end, he founds the Tuskegee Institute, a notable vocational academy for African-Americans. Other African-American social and religious groups work towards this goal as well. One such figure in this movement is Sarah Breedlove, who starts a hair product company and becomes a self-made millionaire; African-American land ownership and the middle class starts to emerge. However, artwork featuring grotesque caricatures of African-Americans go on the rise, presenting racist and hateful imagery of the people as a whole. Gates views examples of these caricatures at the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan. These images work to disenfranchise African-Americans and legitimize violence against them, as well as educating future generations to adopt a racist viewpoint.

At the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, a display called “The American Negro Exhibit” features thousands of photographed of dignified, well-dressed African-American families. The exhibit is created by William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, better known as “W.E.B. Du Bois,” a member of the African-American intellectual elite. He works to counteract racist imagery surrounding African-Americans with his own positive examples of his people, and believes that former slaves in the South cannot escape the oppression that hangs over them without help. He becomes the first African-American to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard, and leads his fellow intellectuals in fighting for full citizenship for African-Americans. To accomplish this, he first establishes the Niagara Movement in 1905, outlining a series of principles that eventually serve as the framework of the modern Civil Rights Movement. He then co-founds the NAACP, the oldest civil rights organization in the United States. He highlights the use of literature and the arts as means of swaying public opinion in their favor, working to create a literary movement and publishing strategy in New York City. Meanwhile, African-Americans flock to New York along with many other cities, turning the neighborhood of Harlem into a center for African-American culture by 1925. There they enjoy an unprecedented level of freedom and self-expression. Many African-Americans take the opportunity to engage in the arts, creating a great surge in artistic works by African-Americans known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Harlem comes to be viewed as an “oasis of permissibility” which was open to different opportunities and art forms than elsewhere. Its vibrant nightlife attracts members of both races, and they enjoy a level of communication and cooperation with each other unheard of in other places. Speakeasies become bustling social centers during the age of Prohibition; segregation is not an issue in them, although their nature makes them somewhat concealed from public view. African-American music and culture in Harlem comes to be a dominant force on the social scene, and whites flock to it as a symbol of current popular culture. Of paramount importance in this culture is jazz; although it is held in disdain by the African-American cultural elite, jazz proves to be a monumental force for change in both music and culture. At this time, film emerges as an art form, and one of its early figures includes Oscar Micheaux, the first African-American filmmaker. He directs over 40 films over a decades-long film career, and is notable for his portrayal of a wide range of African-American characters in non-demeaning and “sophisticated” roles. His films are shown in African-American theaters and capitalize on the rapidly emerging African-American film audience, serving as social commentary about the roles of African-Americans in society. He is known for exploring controversial subject matter such as miscegenation, rape, and, in films such as 1920’s “Within Our Gates,” issues surrounding interracial relations and violence.

“Within Our Gates” essentially serves as a rebuttal to the enormously popular 1915 film “The Birth of a Nation.” That film is criticized by the NAACP for its portrayals of African-Americans; many of the characters are played by white actors in blackface, the film depicts African-American men as sexual predators, and positively characterizes the Ku Klux Klan. The real-life Klan enjoys a revitalization because of the film, remaining a perennial force of white supremacy. In Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, African-Americans enjoy successful businesses in the midst of rampant racism, but tragedy strikes when a teenage African-American boy is accused of attacking a white girl in an elevator. Wes Young, a boy at the time, recounts to Gates that the boy was accused of touching the girl on her posterior in the crowded elevator, although this accusation is never properly proven. A mob assembles and storms the jailhouse where the accused is being held. They move to lynch him, but African-American men assemble to protect the boy. The fight erupts into a massive fire which destroys hundreds of buildings in the area, thus all-but negating the African-American presence. The motivation behind all these events is unease from whites about the relative economic success of African-Americans.

Other racially-motived conflicts spring up around the nation. Soldiers from World War I, African-American or otherwise, return home and compete with immigrants for scarce jobs. In 1919, a wave of racially-motived violence known as “Red Summer” begins in Charleston, South Carolina, sweeping across several cities and resulting in hundreds of deaths. During this time a new leader emerges in the form of Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican immigrant who founds the Universal Negro Improvement Association with the goal of uniting all people of African descent throughout the world. His ideals and expression of pride at being African-American become quite popular amongst African-American communities, and the UNIA finds its numbers swelling. The organization publishes the Negro World newspaper and calls for the repatriation of Africa, and Garvey creates the Black Star Line, a shipping company designed to transport his followers back to Africa. However, Garvey tries to sell shares in a ship he does not own and the FBI investigates him for fraud. He is convicted and serves a jail sentence for his crimes; his sentence is commuted in exchange for being deported back to Jamaica.

The end of the 1920’s sees the beginning of the Great Depression, which proves to be especially devastating for African-Americans. Many are fired from their jobs en masse, reaching an unemployment rate reaching over 50%. During this time, lawyer Charles Hamilton Houston sets out to expose the inherent injustices surrounding the education system in the South with regards to African-American. He takes a camera and shoots his own documentary of the school system, demonstrating the inadequacy of African-American school facilities compared with those for whites. He uses this footage as legal evidence to build a case for helping the underprivileged students. Houston adopts the belief that an African-American lawyer should be “a soldier taking the battle into the courtroom.” He spearheads an effort to combat the unjust Jim Crow laws, training a new generation of lawyers at Howard Law School to continue this struggle. He and his students challenge the “separate but equal” laws throughout the South in various cases, scoring victories in spite of the refusal of high-ranking legal figures to listen to him. He lays the groundwork for the case that eventually becomes Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, overturning segregation in public schools four years after Houston’s death.

However, segregation still runs rampant throughout the 1930’s. One pervasive problem involves finding safe places to rest on the road due to the lack of facilities designated for African-Americans. In 1936, the Negro Motorist Green-Book is published by Victor H. Green, featuring listings of hotels, garages, restaurants, and other places catering to African-Americans. It ensures that African-Americans could avoid facing retribution or indignity while traveling; automobiles come into their own in the late 1930’s as a means of transportation, especially by African-Americans, who must contend with a largely uncertain road system without guarantees of receiving needed service. This newfound mobility fuels another large migration of African-Americans and represents another step in achieving their independence.


  • DATE: 8:00 PM
  • RUNNING TIME: 0:56:06
  • COLOR/B&W: Color
  • CATALOG ID: 121905
  • 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
  • Phil Bertelsen … Producer, Director
  • Hazel Gurland-Pooler … Co-Producer
  • George Kunhardt … Co-Producer
  • Teddy Kunhardt … Co-Producer
  • Jaime Sukonnik … Associate Producer
  • Stef Gordon … Line Producer
  • Chris King … Animation
  • Brian Oakes … Animation
  • Brittany Clemons … 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 by
  • Henry Louis Gates Jr. … Host, Narrator
  • Paula J. Giddings … Interviewee
  • Isabel Wilkerson … Interviewee
  • David Levering Lewis … Interviewee
  • Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham … Interviewee
  • David Pilgrim … Interviewee
  • Brent Hayes Edwards … Interviewee
  • Donald Bogle … Interviewee
  • Wes Young … Interviewee
  • Tedra Williams … Interviewee
  • Charles J. Ogletree Jr. … Interviewee
  • Hannibal B. Johnson … Interviewee
  • Patricia Sullivan … Interviewee
  • Peniel E. Joseph … Interviewee
  • Sarah Breedlove
  • W.E.B. Du Bois
  • Marcus Garvey
  • Victor H. Green
  • Charles Hamilton Houston
  • Oscar Micheaux
  • Thomas Moss
  • Booker T. Washington
  • Ida B. Wells
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