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Slavery and the Making of AmericaDramatic re-enactment of a group of slaves
Time and Place Slave Memories Resources The Slave Experience

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LAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA is a four-part series documenting the history of American slavery from its beginnings in the British colonies to its end in the Southern states and the years of post-Civil War Reconstruction. Drawing on a wealth of recent scholarship, it looks at slavery as an integral part of a developing nation, challenging the long held notion that slavery was exclusively a Southern enterprise. At the same time, by focusing on the remarkable stories of individual slaves, it offers new perspectives on the slave experience and testifies to the active role that Africans and African Americans took in surviving their bondage and shaping their own lives.
Episode 1: The Downward Spiral
Collage of images inclluding a photo of a slave woman and a detail froom a 1780 newspaper advertising sllaves for sale.

Episode one opens in the 1620s with the introduction of 11 men of African descent and mixed ethnicity into slavery in New Amsterdam. Working side by side with white indentured servants, these men labored to lay the foundations of the Dutch colony that would later become New York. There were no laws defining the limitations imposed on slaves at this point in time. Enslaved people, such as Anthony d'Angola, Emmanuel Driggus, and Frances Driggus could bring suits to court, earn wages, and marry. But in the span of a hundred years, everything changed. By the early 18th century, the trade of African slaves in America was Watch a preview expanding to accommodate an agricultural economy growing in the hands of ambitious planters. After the 1731 Stono Rebellion (a violent uprising led by a slave named Jemmy) many colonies adopted strict "black codes" transforming the social system into one of legal racial oppression.

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Episode 2: Liberty in the Air
Collage of images including a photo of white Americans during the revolution, and a photo of African-American men.

From the 1740s to the 1830s, the institution of slavery continued to support economic development. As the slave population reproduced, American planters became less dependent on the African slave trade. Ensuing generations of slaves developed a unique culture that blended elements of African and American life. Episode two follows the paths of several African Americans, including Thomas Jefferson's slave Jupiter, Colonel Tye, Elizabeth Freeman, David Walker, and Maria Stewart, Watch a preview as they respond to the increasingly restrictive system of slavery. At the core of this episode is the Revolutionary War, an event which reveals the contradictions of a nation seeking independence while simultaneously denying freedom to its black citizens.

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Episode 3: Seeds of Destruction
Collage of images including a photo of a cotton field and a photo of a slave being whipped.

One by one the Northern states, led by Vermont in 1777, adopted laws to abolish and phase out slavery. Simultaneously, slavery in the Southern United States entered the period of its greatest expansion. Episode three, which starts at the beginning of the 1800s, examines slavery's increasing divisiveness in America as the nation develops westward and cotton replaces tobacco as the country's most valuable crop. The episode weaves national events through the personal histories of two African American slaves -- Harriet Jacobs and Louis Hughes -- who not only managed to escape bondage, but also exposed the horrific realities of the slave experience in autobiographical narratives. These and other stories of physical, psychological, and sexual exploitation fed the fires of a reinvigorated abolitionist movement. With a diverse membership comprised Watch a preview of men and women, blacks and whites, and led by figures including Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Amy Post, abolitionist sentiment gathered strength in the North, contributing to the widening fissure and imminent break-up of the nation.

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Episode 4: The Challenge of Freedom
Collage of images including a 1774 newspaper advertisement for slasves and a photo of African-American soldiers.

Episode four looks at Civil War and Reconstruction through the experiences of South Carolina slave Robert Smalls. It chronicles Smalls' daring escape to freedom, his military service, and his tenure as a congressman after the war. As the events of Smalls' life unfold, the complexities of this period in American history are revealed. The episode shows the transformation of the war from a struggle for union to a battle over slavery. It examines the black contribution to the war effort and traces the gains and losses of newly freed African Americans during Reconstruction. The 13th amendment abolished slavery in 1865, the 14th and 15th amendments guaranteed black civil rights, and the Freedmen's Bureau offered aid to former slaves throughout the 1870s. Watch a preview Yet simultaneously, the formation of militant groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan threatened the future of racial equality and segregation laws began to appear across the country. Slavery's eradication had not brought an end to black oppression.

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