This week PBS’s The American Experience concluded “The Abolitionists,” a searing three-part documentary on a fiercely committed band of white and African American freedom fighters. It took a fresh look at the anti-slavery movement, its most dramatic moments, its key figures and its amazing impact considering it was a movement which was run by hated racial and political minorities—and which welcomed women and people of color when women were told to “shut up” and slaves ordered to “do your work.”
Abolitionists have largely been “unknown” in the media and popular culture for many, many decades. For the longest time children—and adults—learned little if anything about Abolitionism and its many heroes. Then in the 1960s the civil rights and Black Power movements demonstrated African American resistance to injustice was a normal part of American history and that some whites had also stepped forward to help. But for the longest time few children or adults learned anything about Abolitionism and its problems, successes and heroes
When the media, Hollywood movies, and school texts put this multicultural band up front they appeared as a wildly disorganized, hysterical collection of individuals driven by personal problems to embrace the odd political position that slavery had to end quickly no matter the cost. During a time when a slaveholder oligarchy ruled the early United States this small band of African Americans and whites drew a line in the sand. Given the planters’—and the North’s—financial stake in slavery and the slave trade, these men and women knew their line in the sand would first fill with their own blood.
In the racist blockbuster, “Birth of A Nation,” abolitionists are featured but fare badly. They are naively unaware their campaigns will unleash (oh yes!) a national black race war. And there is the devious white “Congressman Stoneman”—patterned after radical Congressman Thaddeus Stevens—who seeks a black dominated society though it will destroy the Southern racial order and lead to the rape of white women. At the movie’s climax this vivid atrocity has the Ku Klux Klan riding in to save civilization!
In short, planters painted the abolitionist approach as rooted in stupidity and a rejection of white supremacy and therefore destructive of republican decision-making, and harmful to society. They labeled them foes of the Constitution and rational thinking and as citizens who would pursue their obtuse if fervent arguments into an unnecessary war.
I am familiar with this line of reasoning because as a New York City public school pupil in the 1930s I was marched through it. I continued to encounter this indoctrination in northern colleges in the 1950s and then as a New York City teacher of U.S. history from our state curriculum and its approved textbooks. This is the reason I began to write my own texts, and why in the late 1960s I was more than pleased to serve as a general editor for two large New York Times’ reprint series for schools and libraries—one was seventy books on “The Anti-Slavery Crusade in America,” and the other 144 books on classics in African American history and culture.
Americans like to see their story told through a few brave individuals, so in focusing on the lives of five of abolition’s most symbolic figures, “The Abolitionists” appeals to a wide audience. The actors are believable, their motivations and words gripping, and their personal and political struggles exciting and informative. The five immediately unveil the nature and breadth of a crusade that began with those enslaved (Frederick Douglass), touched the conscience of religiously-oriented white middle class northerners (William Lloyd Garrison), talented middle class white women (Harriet Beecher Stowe), deeply religious white radicals (John Brown) and even some southern women from prominent slaveholder families (Sarah and Angelina Grimké).
Nor does the PBS series gloss over the crude violence visited on people. The inherent brutality of slavery is shown, the beatings of men, women and children, sale or auction of parents from children, the pro-slavery posses that rode into northern cities to seize peaceful people of color. Abolitionist meetings are attacked, set afire and leaders slain or dragged through the streets. The role of the Federal government in protecting slaveholders’ rights is captured in many a scene. White mobs destroy abolitionist literature mailed to Southern post offices. Congress bans anti-slavery petitions for seven years. No false flag-waving here.
And there is no effort to soften the ideological and personal conflicts within the movement or its greatest frustration. Abolitionists who believe in nonviolence have to face the fact that after decades their crusade failed to achieve its goals. There were millions more enslaved in 1850 than before Garrison started in 1829. Slavery had become more entrenched and profitable, and planters had tightened their grip on Southern state governments, the Federal government, and those in chains.
When John Brown asks Frederick Douglass how many owners did he persuade to free slaves? Douglass has no answer. Douglass and Garrison clashed bitterly when Douglass independently began his own North Star paper. Abolitionist men fight over whether to allow women to participate. John Brown’s majestic plans to bring down slavery through an armed uprising infuriate Garrison and antagonize Douglass.
That said, though there are glimpses of thousands of ordinary people doing their anti-slavery bit, the sense of a nationwide movement is often lacking in the series. Abolitionists attacked the very core of the government and the plantation economy in large cities and rural areas. They challenged an entire system’s thinking when slavery was the country’s largest single source of profits. Garrison and Douglass took their crusade overseas to England, and Douglass became an international reform figure in Ireland.
Through women’s fairs that featured the importance of gift-giving for children, abolitionist women of both colors transformed Christmas from a raucus male drinking party into concern for enslaved who were treated like children. They even introduced the Christmas tree as a means of raising money to battle human bondage.
Anti-slavery women learned enough about oppression to form the women’s rights movement. At their 1848 Seneca Falls Convention Frederick Douglass was there to endorse the right to vote, a cause he championed for the rest of his life. These would have been important to include, but their absence does not diminish the meaningful images and words cast on the TV screen.
And, as the last segment turns toward the Civil War, its five heroic figures who led the crusade to end human bondage seem to disappear except as an applauding audience to President Lincoln. Brown is dead and the others seem to tag along, pleased the President is moving toward his Emancipation Proclamation.
This is clearly reflected in the series’ dramatic Boston African American church scene on the New Year’s Eve preceding January 1, 1863 when the President will (or will he?) officially sign his Proclamation. African Americans have gathered to pray, and even Douglass is busily checking his watch. All breathlessly await the news until a messenger arrives in the early morning hours with the good news. Worshippers are thankful and praise God.
But abolitionists passive and Lincoln active is hardly an accurate story of emancipation. Not even the President saw it that way.
Enslaved and free people of color had been fighting for emancipation for many years. And on that fateful day the only people liberated were those in Confederate territories—where they could not be free until Federal troops reached them.
Why leave out a glorious culmination—how a stampede of runaways into Union camps that began in 1861 persuaded the President that he could make better use of the South’s labor to advance freedom than the Confederacy could do to maintain human bondage. The Northern public was delighted to read how in 1862 an enslaved African American crew one night commandeered the Confederate gun-ship Planter and sailed it out of Charleston Harbor to surrender it to the Union fleet.
“The Abolitionists” could have celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation showing the First South Carolina Volunteers ceremony at Hilton Head on the Seas Islands. Trained by Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a militant Abolitionist, they repeatedly charged into battle against the Confederacy. Higginson and his men celebrated with their families, northern visitors and teachers. Higginson, Sgt. Prince Rivers and Cpl. Robert Sutton were presented with a special flag from New York. Then Higginson recorded an unplanned moment as he and Sgt. Prince Rivers received the colors, African American families spontaneously sang,
“My country ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing.”
Higginson wrote, “I never saw anything so electric; it made all other words cheap; . . . art could not have dreamed a tribute to the day of jubilee that should be so affecting; history will not believe it. . . . Just think of it!—the first day they ever had a country, the first flag they had ever seen which promised anything to their people….”
The series also might have taken its audience to the hardly passive First Kansas Colored Infantry emancipation ceremony. They had been fighting Confederate armies in the Indian Territory for two years. On January 1, 1863 to honor their “immortal hero” they did not sing about President Lincoln but instead sang “the John Brown song.” They added, “John Brown sowed, and the harvesters are we,” then men and officers shared “strong drink” and a barbecue.
The last episode of “The Abolitionists” does redeem itself, somewhat contradictorily, when it includes this powerful quote by Lincoln a few days before his death: “I have only been an instrument. The logic and moral power of Garrison, and the anti-slavery people of the country and the Army have done all.” By the time he said this some 10 to 13 percent of the U.S. Army were African Americans who had handed the Union some of its greatest victories. The abolitionists had blazed a trail that put freedom on the agenda and assured the use of African American troops that would nail down the ultimate Union victory.
Still, “The Abolitionists” is truly a narrative we can understand in the enlightened 21st century with a two-term black President, a white woman Secretary of State, a woman of color representing us at the U.N., plus dozens of women senators and members of Congress. The series is not superficial, and repeatedly calls on scholarly heads to give the tale depth and understanding. It gets its painful story right over and over again.