Slavery and the Making of America
Transcript

SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA
Episode 3: "Seeds of Destruction"


Voice of Harriet Jacobs: I once saw two beautiful children playing together. One was a fair white child; the other was her slave. When I saw them embracing each other, I turned sadly from the lovely sight. I foresaw the blight that would fall on the slave's heart.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In the 1850s, Harriet Jacobs began to pen an autobiography she would call INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF A SLAVE GIRL. She would become the first woman to write a slave narrative -- published works written by African Americans who had escaped lives of bondage. At a time when state laws in the south made it a crime to teach the enslaved reading and writing, Harriet would use her words to reveal the awful truth of American slavery. Her story begins in the coastal town of Edenton, North Carolina, where she was born in 1813. Harriet's first owner had ignored the law and taught her to read and write. After she died, Harriet was willed to the three-year-old daughter of Doctor James Norcom. Twelve-years-old with light skin and dark eyes, Harriet became a house slave. She was to cook and clean, and serve the wishes of the mistress -- and the master.

Voice of Harriet Jacobs: Even the little child will learn that if God has bestowed beauty upon her, it will prove her greatest curse.

Nell Irvin Painter: Harriet Jacobs calls slavery a cage of obscene birds ... Harriet says that no matter what the slave girl looks like if she's dark, if she's light, if she's medium, if she's at all attractive -- she has beauty -- it's a curse because the master will be after her.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Dr. Norcom was a man widely admired in the community. He took an unmistakable interest in his new house slave, a girl forty years his junior.

Jean Fagan Yellin: The scent of sex and of oppression was overpowering in that household. It was just everywhere. And then Norcom starts to focus on her ... and she didn't know what to do ... she's 12 ... she doesn't know how to handle it. She doesn't want anything to do with him. He's a disgusting old man. It's a very difficult, very difficult situation for her. He is just after her all the time. She could be washing the dishes, she could be making up the beds, she could be setting the parlor straight and whenever he's in a room with her -- which is a lot -- ah, he's just after her.

Voice of Harriet Jacobs: My master began to whisper foul words in my ear. He peopled my young mind with unclean images, such as only a vile monster could think of. He met me at every turn, reminding me that I belonged to him, and swearing by heaven and earth that he would compel me to submit to him.

Jean Fagan Yellin: She's just completely drowning in this, in this harassment and in this sexual situation ... He doesn't want to force her. He wants to convince her. He wants to control her. He wants to control her mind. She says, "my master had money and power on his side -- I had a determined will. There is might in each." Wonderful line. So she's, she's in a war and really from the time she's 12, 13, 14 she understands it. Cause she isn't his victim. She's his enemy.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Harriet knew that the doctor was the father of eleven slave children.

Nell Irvin Painter: Norcom had many children outside of his legal marriage ... And what Harriet tells us -- that he tended to sell the children off.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The practice was not unusual. "Mulattos," wrote a slaveholder's wife, "are as common as blackberries."

Mia Bay: The rates of interracial children being born may have actually been higher then than any time since. Most of these liaisons cannot be described as consensual because any kind of liaison between a slave and their owner cannot be described as consensual.

Deborah Gray White: So no white man ever had to feel like he was in fact raping a black woman if he took her against her will. In fact if you, ah, look through the court records you will find that, ah, the judges often say there is no such thing as the rape of a black woman. The courts do not recognize it.

Nell Irvin Painter: This is just, it's disgusting, it's obscene is what it is. It's obscene, it's perverted, it's incestuous but it was normal. It was legal.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The Southern code of honor, Harriet learned, did little to protect the virtue of black women.

Voice of Harriet Jacobs: If a pastor has offspring by a woman not his wife, the church dismisses him. But if she is colored, it does not hinder his continuing to be their good shepherd ... When Dr. Norcom joined the Episcopal church, I was much surprised. I supposed that religion had a purifying effect on the character of men, but the worst persecutions I endured from him were after he was a communicant.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: If Harriet had hoped that Mary Norcom would offer protection from her husband's advances, she was sadly disappointed.

Jean Fagan Yellin: Maria Norcom, as her, as her husband called her, didn't have a lot of opinions. She married him when she was 16 -- ah, she was pregnant I think every year and a half after that forever. And, um, she was expected to, to have those children and raise those children and run the household.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: For Norcom's wife, Harriet's presence was a source of unrelenting misery.

Nell Irvin Painter: What's particularly, ah, shocking, astonishing is the figure reappearing in ex-slave narratives of the jealous mistress -- the mistress who cannot protect herself from her husband's adultery. And ... who makes her own life a torture because of jealousy and because of the sense that she is not able to lift herself above her husband's lust.

Mia Bay: Meanwhile Dr. Norcom pursues Harriet over years and years ... despite his wife, or maybe even to spite his wife because they seem to be stuck in this triangle where everyone is -- um, you know -- they're tormenting Harriet and tormenting each other at the same time.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: At 15, Harriet believed she had finally found her rescuer -- Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. The thirty-year-old lawyer was from one of North Carolina's most important families.

Nell Irvin Painter: He says that he's concerned about her. How does she feel? Imagine you're 15 years old and a charming young man, I mean he's not so young he's twice as old as she is -- actually he's almost 30, comes and expresses concern. "I am your friend" he says. You know where that goes. You know where that goes if you're 15 and you're white or black or brown or yellow or red and you feel you're in trouble. He was the safe haven. What was Harriet thinking when she agreed to take on a white lover? She's a teenager, that's the first thing we have to remember. She's a kid.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Harriet was convinced that a man of such power and influence would be able to free her.

Jean Fagan Yellin: It is a Hollywood dream more than a century before Hollywood, but it had happened to another young woman in the town and she knew the story and the whole town knew the story of Rose Kabaras and how she had really managed to get her young master to fall in love with her. And he had in fact freed their children and he had in fact freed her and he had in fact even freed her mother. So there was a model for this wild alternative and Harriet was a risk taker. And ... and she took the risk.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Within a year of starting her relationship with Sawyer, Harriet gave birth to a son. By law her child was owned, as she was, by Norcom. As Harriet waited for Sawyer to free them, America's protestant churches were caught up in a sweeping religious revival. Many slaveholders saw a value in exposing their slaves to Christianity. The message from the pulpit was clear.

Voice of Harriet Jacobs: Servants be obedient to them that are your masters. Obey your old master and your young master. If you disobey your earthly master, you offend your heavenly Master. You must obey God's commandments!

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Many African Americans, however, were extracting a very different message from the good book.

Jim Horton: All the stories about being brought to the Promised Land being saved. I mean that has special meaning to slaves. So that the slaves drew from Christianity the parts that particularly spoke to the oppressed. The parts that said God won't forget you. The parts that said it doesn't matter what people on earth think about you, if god loves you.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: On August 22, 1831, a small army of the oppressed rose up, and the world of Harriet Jacobs, and of slaves throughout the south was forever changed.

An enslaved preacher named Nat Turner led seventy slaves in an uprising in Southampton County, Virginia. In a forty-eight-hour period they killed fifty-seven whites, including women and children.

Jim Horton: It is no accident that Nat Turner was a preacher. It is no accident that when he goes to war he does so based upon commandments that he finds in the bible in Christianity ... It was disturbing to say the least to slaveholders that their slaves might spout back to them Christian doctrine which would justify slave rebellion.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: As word of the rebellion spread across the south, whites began to lash out. In Edenton, Harriet watched in terror as every person of color became a target.

Voice of Harriet Jacobs: Groups of white men were rushing in every direction, wherever a colored face was to be found. Everywhere men, women, and children were whipped till the blood stood in puddles at their feet. Mobs dragged along a number of colored people, each white man threatening instant death if they did not stop their shrieks.

Jim Horton: And so you know after Nat Turner's rebellion lots of slaves who had nothing at all to do with the rebellion suffered sometimes were killed. Not because they were involved in the slave rebellion but because white people were more afraid. And when they got more afraid they got more violent and they were more dangerous.

Deborah Gray White: They had to retaliate. They had to show that in fact no black rebellion would or could succeed. And so they struck back. They killed blacks in the countryside. They took and cut off their heads and they put them on the roadside on stands as a sign to all blacks that they could not and should not rebel.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The south remained on high alert. Patrols guarded roads and gathering places. Slaveholders fostered a martial atmosphere that embraced brutality as a necessity. For Harriet Jacobs, life under Norcom's grip would become intolerable and far more complicated. At nineteen, she gave birth to another child by Sawyer -- a daughter. Sawyer offered to buy the children. Norcom not only refused, he wanted revenge.

Nell Irvin Painter: Norcom is threatening to send her children to a plantation of his that's known for brutalizing slaves. Ah -- Harriet uses the word brutalizing, what we -- that's what we would call traumatizing. And when she speaks of what happens to people there -- their hearts get broken, their psyche's get broken they're not themselves afterwards.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Slowly the realization came: if she were gone, Norcom would relinquish the children. The only way to save her children was to leave them.

Jean Fagan Yellin: And so she decides she has to act to free them. It's, it's a wild move but she made wild moves before ...

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In 1835, Harriet fled into nearby swamps until her grandmother -- a free woman living in Edenton -- arranged for a more permanent hide out. Soon after, Harriet was secreted away in a tiny space beneath the roof of her grandmother's house. Harriet's world would now shrink to a space nine feet long, seven feet wide, and three feet high.

Jean Fagan Yellin: If you take a very large library table and get under the library table that's the kind of space that you're talking about.

Voice of Harriet Jacobs: Rats and mice ran over my bed. I was restless for want of air; the atmosphere so stifled that even mosquitoes would not condescend to buzz in it. I suffered for air even more than for light.

Nell Irvin Painter: She suffers from heat, she suffers from cold. From time to time she can come down and walk around a little bit but she's under house arrest basically.

Mia Bay: ... she was literally a prisoner who, who made herself a prisoner and I guess that's how she did it. She survived as prisoners do.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Within weeks, Harriet learned that Sawyer had bought the children, and was sending them to live at her grandmother's house. Still, Harriet continued to live a secret existence, just a floor apart from her children.

Mia Bay: The thing that holds her back is her devotion to her children. And that was for a lot of slave women the thing that kept them from running away. There were a great deal more male runaways. And the typical runaway was a young male who didn't have children. For slave women, they just didn't want to run away without their children.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Days slipped into months ... months into years. Harriet filled her time writing, reading, and sewing.

Jean Fagan Yellin: She describes some psychotic episodes ... she talks about, ah, hearing voices and she talks about seeing things. And she talks about passing out and um they have to bring her to.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: She bore a tiny whole through one of the walls. On occasion, she could catch a glimpse of her children playing nearby comforting herself in the knowledge that she had freed them from Norcom's hold.

Voice of Harriet Jacobs: Countless were the nights that I sat late at the little loophole scarcely large enough to give me a glimpse of one twinkling star. Season after season, year after year I peeped at my children's faces and heard their sweet voices, with a heart yearning all the while to say, "Your mother is here."

Deborah Gray White: I think that her psychic strength reflects that of all slave women, because slavery demanded a different kind of womanhood. It demanded that people be self-reliant. It demanded that they try to do everything that they could to protect themselves. She has the strength and resilience that African-American women had to develop to survive slavery.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Decades before Harriet Jacobs was born, leading Southerners such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had been convinced that slavery was nearing its end. Tobacco had exhausted the soil. The need for slave labor had diminished. That changed in 1803, when President Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase -- and doubled the size of the nation. Four new states, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas, together known as the Deep South, joined the Union as slave states.

Ira Berlin: Thomas Jefferson in negotiating the Louisiana Purchase declared that he was going to create an empire for liberty. He was going to make an area in which American liberty would expand across the continent. Thomas Jefferson's empire for liberty turned out to be an empire for slavery. The 19th century, the years after Louisiana Purchase were the period of the greatest expansion of American slavery ever.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The new land was an ideal match for a new invention -- the cotton gin.

Jim Horton: The combination of the cotton gin and the Louisiana Purchase made the production of cotton unbelievably profitable. You know the cotton gin increased the amount of cotton that a single slave could produce in a day by 50 fold. What it meant was that growing cotton was incredibly, incredibly profitable.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In 1808, just as cotton was creating an insatiable appetite for slave labor, Congress abolished the importation of slaves from Africa. Now an already vibrant domestic slave trade would flourish. In the Upper South, the sale of slaves became more profitable than growing tobacco.

Mia Bay: Slaves vary widely in value from 50 to 2000 dollars depending on who they are, how old they are -- but the valuable ones are very, very valuable.

Ira Berlin: The slave trade developed its own language. This is a language of, of big bucks. It's a language of wenches ... Of course this entire language is meant to separate the black people from the common run of humanity. It's a language of dehumanization, it's a language of bestiality to say that these people are in fact like animals.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Slave auctions became a common sight, even in the nation's capital.

Deborah Gray White: If a young woman was put on the auction block one of the things that they wanted to make sure she could do was have children. They touched peoples bodies both men and women. But you can imagine that for a woman it was it ... in ... incredibly invasive ... So they were not above taking her into a back room and examining her to see whether or not she was able to have children. Now this is the 19th century. So one wonders what an ordinary slaveholder would be doing but they even on the auction block they would feel a women' s breast to see whether or not she could suckle a child.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The specter of the auction block haunted the lives of enslaved people.

Mia Bay: Slave mothers knew that this moment might come. And they anticipated it and they did everything they could to prevent it. They lobbied with their masters. They tried to get sold with their children but it was something that haunted them from the moment that their children were born that they might lose them.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: More than a million people would be sent to the Deep South, nearly twice as many as were brought to America in all the years of the African slave trade. Many of the enslaved were compelled to march the entire distance, some as much as a thousand miles. To one observer the procession of chained slaves resembled nothing so much as a funeral march.

Nell Irvin Painter: And it took everything they had to keep going. And we also need to remember that some people didn't make it. Some people were depressed, some people were suicidal, some people were vengeful and violent with each other or towards animals or toward children. There was a lot of loss. There was a lot of loss.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: While slavery was expanding in the South, the Northern states were abolishing it -- staking their future on free labor. The nation was becoming two separate societies. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 was designed to maintain a balance of free and slave states. Yet, the cotton juggernaut would be unstoppable.

Jim Horton: Cotton becomes the key crop, the key cash producer in the life of the nation. For a period of time, there are more millionaires along a narrow band of land along the Mississippi river than in the entire rest of the nation combined. This is a terribly, terribly profitable crop we're talking about. By 1840 the values of cotton exports was greater than everything else the nation exported to the world combined. And that made slaves the most valuable thing in the nation beside the land itself.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: As the price of slaves soared, slave traders began to roam the North abducting free black people. In April of 1841, Solomon Northup found himself in one of the many slave pens lining the streets of Washington, D.C. Born a free man, he lived in New York State with his wife and three children.

Voice of Solomon Northup: The idea began to break upon my mind that I had been kidnapped. But that I thought was incredible. It could not be that a free citizen of New York should be dealt with thus inhumanly. It was a desolate thought. I bowed my head and wept.

Jim Horton: He was a free person. He knew he was a free man. And so here he is in the situation where it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. The color of your skin marks you as a potential slave.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In Washington, D.C., slave auctions were a daily occurrence. Chained human beings were marched routinely in front of the Capitol.

Jim Horton: If you can picture Solomon Northup a free man who has lived a good portion of his life in New York State and he sees himself in chains being taken away into slavery. Think about the contradiction. Here you have the federal capital of the United States, the nation dedicated to the proposition of human freedom tolerating, profiting from the selling of human beings into bondage.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: At the age of thirty-three, Solomon Northup, was "sold down the river," as the phrase went -- transported down the Mississippi to the cotton fields of the Deep South. Louis Hughes was also sold down the river. At eleven-years-old he was bought in Virginia for 380 dollars.

Voice of Louis Hughes: I can still see my mother's face when she bade me good-bye. I ran off from her as quickly as I could, for I did not want her to see me crying. It came to me, more and more plainly, that I would never see her again.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Louis arrived at the plantation of Mr. Edward McGee. His new owner was one of the wealthiest planters in Mississippi.

Voice of Louis Hughes: When I went out into the yard, everywhere I looked slaves met my view. I never saw so many slaves at one time before.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The young boy was presented as a gift to Mrs. McGee and put to work around the main house. Alone and helpless, he worked hard at his tasks. But it was of no use.

Voice of Louis Hughes: Mrs. McGee was naturally irritable. I tried to please her by arranging the parlor, when I overheard her say: "They soon get spirit, it don't do to praise them." My heart sank within me.

Nell Irvin Painter: So Louis Hughes speaks of his mistress as someone who would simply hit him as he walked by or cuff his ears when he was simply he thought going about his business. One of the saddest sides of this story is that over and over again the children don't understand why they're being beaten. What is the motive? What am I being corrected for? What is it that I'm doing that I shouldn't be doing? You can imagine what this does psychologically if you don't know why you're being beaten.

Mia Bay: It was Hughes's mistress becomes for him an example of the way that slavery corrupts the character of white people. He looks at her and how she takes out her bad feelings on the slaves on a daily basis and thinks this is you know this, this institution is actually bad for white people. It makes them into terrible people.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In the Cotton Kingdom, slaveholders saw themselves as members of a new aristocracy. They built lavish homes, bought the finest furnishings, and prided themselves on the elegance of their manners. Their leisure was purchased by the backbreaking labor of others. At harvest time young Louis was sent to the fields.

Voice of Louis Hughes: The daily task of each able-bodied slave during the cotton-picking season was 250 pounds or more, and all those who did not come up to the required amount would get a whipping.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Enslaved people labored from sunup to sundown, and when the moon was full they continued into the night. Children as young as nine picked cotton.

Jim Horton: And now we had to start thinking about people as slaveholders thought about people and that is as machines. You have to keep getting your machines working at top speed for as long as possible.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Having made their fortunes in the Deep South, planters turned their attention to gaining political power, becoming Governors, Congressmen, Senators, and Presidents.

Jim Horton: Cotton and the slave labor force, which made the production of cotton possible was incredibly powerful economically. And in the 19th century -- as in the 21st century -- economic power translated into political power. In the 72 years between the election of George Washington and the election of Abraham Lincoln, 50 of those years sees a slaveholder in the White House.

Ira Berlin: It is they, ah, who write the laws. It is they who adjudicate those laws. It is they who enforce those laws. Ah, the United States is truly a slave holding republic.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Though they had abandoned slave labor in their own region, Northerners were making huge profits from slavery. Cotton generated an extensive textile industry in New England. Insurance companies insured slaves as property. Many Wall Street firms got their start as middlemen in the cotton trade. Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts called it a conspiracy of the "Lords of the Loom and the Lords of the Lash." The economics of slavery had torn Louis Hughes from his family. Now, he would find another.

Deborah Gray White: People grab other people and they make blood kin out of people who are not kin. It's resilience. It's, it's survival. It's a way to survive. It's a way to make a way out of no way to create a family when it is being torn and split apart.

Nell Irvin Painter: It saved people who were vulnerable in so many ways to physical and psychological abuse. Someone else in the quarters or in the kitchen who says here's a little cake for you or how are you or help me. These are the other sides of these not blood relationships but kin relationships nonetheless.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Louis Hughes would grow strong and healthy. The thought of freedom never far away.

Voice of Louis Hughes: I used to hear Boss read in the papers about runaway slaves who had gone to Canada, and it always made me long to go. Yet, I never appeared as if I paid the slightest attention to what the family read or said on such matters; but I felt that I could try at least to get away.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: When he was twenty-years-old, Louis summoned the courage and fled, only to be caught and returned.

Voice of Louis Hughes: My clothing was removed, and the whipping began. Boss whipped me a while, then he sat down and read his paper, after which the whipping resumed. This continued for two hours ... Then he used tree switches, which cracked the flesh so the blood oozed out. It was weeks before I could bear clothing touching my skin.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Whippings often ended with a bucket of salt water poured on the wounds.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In 1842, Harriet Jacobs had lived in her cramped, dark space for almost seven years.

Voice of Harriet Jacobs: It appeared to me as if ages had rolled away since I entered upon that gloomy, monotonous existence. My friends feared I should become a cripple. Had it not been for the hope of serving my children, I should have been thankful to die. Dark thoughts passed through my mind as I lay there day after day. I tried to be grateful for my little cell, and even to love it as part of the price I had paid for the redemption of my children.

Jean Fagan Yellin: Why for 7 years, almost, 6 years and 11 months she can't leave, I must say I don't understand. And, and researching her life researching her biography, her autobiography I, I didn't really at the beginning believe the 7 years. But in fact ah we know when she went into hiding because we have Norcom's ad in the paper ah saying he's after his fugitive girl Harriet who absconded for no reason.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Now after all those years of confinement, Harriet's secret was about to be exposed. A neighbor's untrustworthy slave had stumbled upon Harriet's hideaway. A ship captain known for smuggling runaways offered to help. Off the coast of Edenton, arrangements were made for Harriet's escape.

Voice of Harriet Jacobs: I was on deck as soon as the day dawned. I watched the reddening sky, and saw the great orb come up slowly out of the water. Soon the waves began to sparkle and everything caught the beautiful glow. I had never realized what grand things air and sunlight are till I had been deprived of them.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Harriet arrived in the bustling city of Philadelphia. There she was met by members of the Underground Railroad, an anti-slavery network dedicated to helping runaway slaves. There were more than half a million free blacks in the North, many of them, like Harriet, had left loved ones behind in the south. Harriet's hope was to find her brother, John, who had fled Edenton years earlier. She boarded a train to New York, and got her first taste of racial attitudes in the North.

Voice of Harriet Jacobs: We were stowed away in a large, rough, car, with windows on each side, too high for us to look out without standing up. This was the first chill to my enthusiasm about the Free States.

Nell Irvin Painter: What she encountered was a world ah very divided by race in which black people were second or third class citizens actually. In which black men could not vote unlike white men ... So it's a hierarchical white supremacists world that she encounters in the north.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: When she found her brother, he was working as an anti-slavery speaker, on occasion sharing a podium with Frederick Douglass. Also a fugitive slave, Douglass was the most powerful voice for black freedom in the country. African Americans, together with white abolitionists, were building a growing anti-slavery movement. In 1849, Harriet moved to Rochester, New York, a hub of abolitionist activity.

Jean Fagan Yellin: She follows her brother west to Rochester. And ah there she meets, um, the most militant group of women on the North American continent. She meets the women who have just in 1848 ah had the first convention of women's rights at Seneca Falls ... And she becomes a very close friend of the Quaker feminist abolitionist Amy Post. And it's to Amy Post that Harriet finally tells her story. And a few years later um Amy convinces Harriet to write her story as a contribution to the movement.

Jim Horton: America would have ignored the contradiction of freedom-loving nation tolerating slavery if they could have. But what free blacks, what slaves what they did in conjunction with white allies who were committed to anti-slavery was to make it increasingly difficult for the nation to ignore this great glaring contradiction.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The anti-slavery message struck a nerve among many Northerners -- as a massive influx of immigrants began putting new strains on their society.

James Oakes: The Irish wage laborers who built those railroads, who dug the canals, were the first real waged labor working class in America. And the growth of that working class is going to become a major social development of 19th century America.

Jim Horton: But there was this notion that slave labor and free labor could not exist side by side. That slave labor would drive out, would devalue free labor.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: With victory in the Mexican War bringing vast new territories into the Union, the conflict between slave states and free states would explode. The south wanted room to grow. The north saw a promise land for free labor. As violent confrontation loomed in the west, Congress devised the Compromise of 1850. California would be admitted as a free state and in return the south would get the most severe Fugitive Slave Law in the nation's history.

Jim Horton: The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 you have to understand what this law said. It said that a person could be accused of being a fugitive slave and that person would have no right of self-defense. No right to speak on his or her own behalf. No right to a lawyer. No right to a jury trial. Think about it.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The law was a resounding defeat for abolitionists. Local officials would receive the hefty sum of 10 dollars for every African American handed over to slave catchers. "It is the beginning of a reign of terror to the colored population," Harriet declared. As danger mounted, scores of Harriet's friends and neighbors fled to Canada.

Voice of Harriet Jacobs: Many a wife discovered a secret she had never known before -- that her husband was a fugitive, and must leave her to insure his own safety. Worse still, many a husband discovered that his wife had fled from slavery years ago, and as "the child follows the condition of the mother," the children of his love were liable to be seized and carried into slavery.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: As the cotton kingdom reached new heights of wealth and power, Louis Hughes married Matilda, a cook on the McGee plantation. Soon after, she gave birth to twins. But, motherhood did not spare Matilda from overwork -- Mrs. McGee's demands were unrelenting, forcing Matilda to neglect her babies.

Voice of Louis Hughes: My heart was sore and heavy, for my wife was almost run to death with work ... My blood boiled in my veins to see my wife so abused; yet I dare not open my mouth.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Within six months, the twins were dead.

Nell Irvin Painter: Well it's a heartbreaking situation and what makes it even worse is that you realize that every slaveholding household in the nation had this kind of a scene sooner or later. We have babies dying like crazy. It's we call it infant mortality. That's a very clinical word for babies dying.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: For the young couple, there seemed no end to suffering. Nearly two hundred and fifty years after Africans were first landed on America's shores, the Supreme Court of the United States would proclaim that blacks, by virtue of their race, were not persons before the law. In 1857, in a landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that Congress had no authority to limit the spread of slavery to any territory. The Chief Justice's words stunned African Americans.

Jim Horton: Roger B. Tawny a Southerner ... reads out loud the decision that says ... that Dred Scott as a black person and black people generally had never been, were not then, could never be citizens of the United States and as such have no rights which white men are bound to respect.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Northerners were furious. "Wherever our flag floats," protested one newspaper editor, "it is the flag of slavery." When abolitionists sought ways to circumvent the Dred Scott ruling, slaveholders pressed for a federal slave law.

James Oakes: This is astounding. By the late 1850s the Southerners are demanding that the federal government pass a slave code for all the territories that it acquitted in the west. And obviously Northerners aren't about to accept this kind of thing.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The battle over slavery was crippling the political process. On a bright spring morning, Congressman Preston Brooks from South Carolina entered the senate chamber -- and beat Senator Charles Sumner, the fiery abolitionist, into unconsciousness.

Jim Horton: Violence is erupting in the halls of government, on the streets of Washington, involving our lawmakers. There are people who are coming to sessions of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate armed. In fact one letter says the only people who aren't coming with two guns are those who are coming with two guns and a knife.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In the midst of partisan turmoil all eyes turned to the 1860 presidential election, and the Republican nominee -- the "free soil" candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Both Edward McGee and Louis Hughes anxiously awaited the results.

Voice of Louis Hughes: Boss had been reading the papers, when he broke out with the exclamation: "The very idea of electing an old rail splitter to the presidency of the United States! Well, he'll never take his seat."

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The Democratic party had fractured north and south, giving victory to the "rail splitter" from Illinois -- the first time a candidate was elected without carrying a single Southern state.

James Oakes: Remember Lincoln was elected committed to not interfering with slavery anywhere. He was only committed to restricting its expansion. But at that point the slaveholders had become so convinced that the north was taken over by these lunatic abolitionists that that is the way they viewed Abraham Lincoln's election, no matter what Lincoln said.

Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Even before Lincoln took office, seven Southern states withdrew from the Union. Enslaved people across the south were heartened by the news. For Louis and Matilda the moment held the first ray of hope for freedom. After reuniting with her children, Harriet Jacobs completed her autobiography. As she looked toward an uncertain future, her brother's words weighed heavy on her heart, "woe be to the country where the sun of liberty has to rise up out of the sea of blood." The United States had come apart over slavery. The nation was at the brink of civil war.

Thirteen/WNETPBS
close window