When we first began the task of tackling the history of abolitionism four years ago, we were faced with a daunting task: the movement spanned decades, the leaders were numerous, the history complicated and the scholarly literature voluminous. And yet there was no book that told the overarching story of the abolitionists, and no guide for capturing the courage and struggles of these remarkable civil rights heroes. We decided that the way to grab the attention of a broad television audience was to focus on a handful of key characters -- that is, to create a character-driven mini-series set against the backdrop of a tumultuous time in American history.
Initially we chose to focus solely on the intertwined stories of Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison, largely because they are the best-known abolitionists and among the most important. The two men -- one a former slave, the other an impoverished printer -- are among the greatest civil rights activists in American history. They opened the eyes of thousands and put their families at risk to erase the sin of slavery. They had tremendous respect for each other and stood together for many years before, sadly, having a bitter falling out. Though they never fully reconciled, the ties between the two ran deep. When Garrison died, Douglass wrote a eulogy of his former mentor that was transcendent and profoundly moving.
The relationship between Douglass and Garrison forms the backbone of our mini-series. As historian John Stauffer points out, "To see how their two lives both evolve for awhile in parallel and then diverge and eventually converge again is a way to frame the broader themes of the abolitionist movement. It shows the movement's internal debate over fighting slavery through the political process, which Garrison rejected and Douglass came to embrace. It covers Garrison's pacifism and Douglass' advocacy of revolutionary violence. It shows both men's huge embrace of feminism. So focusing on these two men is an ideal way, in my view, to frame the entire abolition movement."
Although the film was originally conceived as a dual biography, over time we realized that structure didn't fully recognize the tremendous contribution of women to the antislavery cause. The abolitionist movement succeeded in large part because of women who spoke out publicly against slavery -- a role many people, including some in the movement, considered unseemly and provocative.
We chose to feature one of those early feminists, Angelina Grimké. She was one of the first women to ever speak to audiences that included men, and she gradually began connecting her belief in the rights of black Americans to the rights of women, causing great upheaval within the anti-slavery movement. In addition, she is all the more intriguing because she was herself a former slave owner. Grimke revolted against her slave society, left home to take up the antislavery cause, and urged other southern women to do the same. As one of the few abolitionists who had experienced slavery first-hand, she proved invaluable to the movement.
To advisor and historian Lois Brown, the abolitionist movement was a like a river formed from many diverse tributaries -- something the film captures well. "The primary figures represent different and really compelling pieces of the story of America's move from enslavement to freedom," Brown says. "Frederick Douglass makes his way towards freedom, and in many ways Angelina Grimké and William Lloyd Garrison -- two people who by all accounts are free -- also make their way to freedom. The power of this film lies in the way that it pays attention to the networks that develop. Each of these primary figures, these heroes that we behold, does come to a moment of real reckoning for themselves, where they have to make the decision, whether or not they are going to live a life of tortured silence or whether they are going to speak their minds and believe in their hearts, and go forth without any guarantee that the world will listen or will improve."
The abolitionists were originally deeply committed to non-violence, but after a decade of struggle many began to wonder if slavery would ever end without violence. This tension is key to the history of the movement. Douglass himself began to have doubts. He was encouraged to put his pacifism aside by his close friend John Brown, who urged Douglass to join his small band of armed men in a raid on Harper's Ferry. As much as any other single event, Brown's raid escalated tensions between proslavery and antislavery forces, and helped push the nation closer to war.
Finally, the project did not feel complete without the inclusion of the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Unlike our other characters, Stowe was not a life-long abolitionist. Initially, she disdained the movement, but her own experience of tragic loss, and her exposure to slavery, changed her mind. Her book -- the best-selling novel of the 19th century -- would win the hearts of Americans and, in the words of one scholar, convert millions "to being against slavery."
January 8, 9-10pm: The Abolitionists, Part 1
January 15, 9-10pm: The Abolitionists, Part 2
January 22, 9-10pm: The Abolitionists, Part 3
To form a more perfect union, they tore the nation apart. The story of Abolitionist allies Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown and Angelina Grimké, and how they turned a despised fringe movement against chattel slavery into a force that literally changed the nation.
January 29, 9-11pm: Henry Ford
The biography of a farm boy who rose from obsurity to become the most influential American innovator of the 20th century, this biography of Henry Ford offers an incisive look at the birth of the American auto industry with its long history of struggles between labor and management, and a thought-provoking reminder of how Ford's automobile forever changed the way we work, where we live, and our ideas about individuality, freedom and possibility.
Henry Ford is part of The Titans collection, which includes biographies of Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefeller family.
February 5, 9-11pm: Andrew Carnegie (Andrew Carnegie: The Richest Man in the World) (repeat)
Andrew Carnegie's life seemed touched by magic. He embodied the American dream: the immigrant who went from rags to riches, the self-made man who became a captain of industry, the king of steel.
February 12, 8-10pm: John D. Rockefeller (The Rockefellers) (repeat)
For decades, the Rockefeller name was despised in America -- associated with John D. Rockefeller Sr.'s feared monopoly, Standard Oil. By the end of his life, Rockefeller had given away half his fortune -- but even his vast philanthropy could not erase the memory of his predatory business practices.
February 19, 8-9:30pm: Silicon Valley
Before Apple and Google, before stock-option millionaires, and before billionaire venture capitalists, a group of eight brilliant young scientists came together to form a company whose radical innovations helped make the United States a leader in both space exploration and the personal computer revolution, changing the way the world works, plays, and communicates. Their leader was 29-year-old Robert Noyce, a physicist with a brilliant mind and the affability of a born salesman, who would co-invent the microchip -- the electronic heart of every modern computer, automobile, cell phone, advanced weapon, and video game.
Got old photos? Put them on our map for a free DVD!
This fall, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE has been building the Abolitionist Map of America -- an interactive map that integrates the history presented in the upcoming documentary The Abolitionists (premiering January 8, 15 & 22nd on PBS) with the present-day life of American cities. We have partnered with dozens of organizations across the country to pin geo-tagged photos, videos, audio files, and documents that are relevant to the abolitionist movement all across America, and now we want you to participate in the pinning too!
From Monday, November 26 through Monday, December 3, we are holding a Pin Drive Contest. Whoever can pin as many complete photos, videos, and/or audio clips to the map will take home the prize - a free DVD copy of The Abolitionists! (Complete pins will include a title, description, location, and date. For more information on what we think is ideal content for the map, check out our how-to guide.)
Do you have anything related to the abolitionist movement in your back yard? In your neighborhood? I just found out a few days ago that one of my friend's homes was the meetingplace for a local female anti-slavery society. The Connecticut house that my colleague grew up in had a tunnel in the basement wall that went out under the road -- it was rumored to be used in the Underground Railroad. What's your story?
It's time to bring those boxes of old photographs down from the attic. It is time to create some videos with your phone or iPad. Pin as many as you can to the map, and help us tell the story of the abolitionist movement in your town or city. Pinning to the map takes only ten minutes.
How many items can you pin? To start pinning your history to the map, visit http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/interactive-map/abolitionists-map/.
By participating in the Pin Drive Contest, you agree to the Terms & Conditions.
Casey is the Special Projects Assistant for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.
Today marks 50 years since the Cuban missile crisis began to unfold in the United States. American satellites had taken photographs showing secret missile bases under construction in Cuba. The Soviet Union was involved. Some missiles were nuclear, and some could reach U.S. soil. The following 13 days would be both tense and delicate for the Kennedy administration, to say the least.
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE interviewed author and Journalist Michael Dobbs for our upcoming biography of JFK (Fall 2013)...
AMERICAN EXPERIENCE will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in 2013 with the broadcast premiere of The Abolitionists on PBS. The three-part docudrama tells the story of how Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and their abolitionist allies Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown and Angelina Grimké turned a despised fringe movement against chattel slavery into a force that literally changed the nation. Watch this short preview...