The names Colonel Tye, Robert Smalls and Harriet Jacobs aren’t as familiar as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Betsy Ross, but they, too, are the forefathers and foremothers of America.
They also were slaves.
So were Denmark Vesey, Mum Bett, Emmanuel and Frances Driggus, and millions of other black pioneers instrumental in building a barely charted territory into one of the strongest and richest countries in the world.
Yet their stories have been largely ignored in U.S. history.
“The reason we don’t know what we ought to know about them isn’t because these people haven’t been telling their stories,” says George Washington University historian James Horton.
He’s among 25 scholars who provide an unparalleled look at slavery and the remarkable stories of individual slaves in “Slavery and the Making of America,” airing on PBS Feb. 9 and 16 at 9 p.m. EST.
“The diaries, the novels, the letters that we are finding now have been there for a couple hundred years. How come we didn’t find them before?” Horton questions. “Part of the reason has to do with what we thought worthy of looking for.”
Visual history of American slavery
Narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, the unique, four-hour series is told through a collage of filmed re-enactments, providing a detailed visual history of American slavery.
From the early 17th century when English settlers in Virginia purchased Africans from Dutch traders, and through the next two centuries with the Civil War and Reconstruction, the documentary explores slavery as more than just an institution of evil and persecution.
Rather, the film shows how slavery became the central economic base for the entire country’s development — a base that was dependent on the labor and know-how of generations of black Americans.
“This is not African American history, it’s American history. It’s the history of all of us,” notes executive producer William R. Grant, director of science, natural history and feature programs for WNET in New York, which produced the series.
And while the documentary ends in late 1876, Grant contends that the story of slavery is extremely relevant today.
“President Bush said recently that Americans do not like to look in the rearview mirror, that we are a forward-looking — not backward-looking — people,” Grant says of the president’s inaugural address.
'The main event in American history'“However, as Peter Wood, one of the historians from Duke University, said in the show, ‘Slavery is ground zero for race relations in America.’ If you don’t understand that, it’s hard to get a grip on what’s going on today. Or as Jim Horton said, ‘Slavery wasn’t the sideshow in America, it was the main event in American history.”’
Grant and his team of historians and production people spent two painstaking years piecing together the documentary — defining the thematic elements for each hour and finding the stories to support them based on newly uncovered historical data.
The project also “brought out an enormous amount of emotion,” Grant said in a telephone interview.
“The actors who played people like Harriet Jacobs found it extremely emotional,” he explained. “All of us on the production team found an emotional connection with our past, whether we were white or black. And, secondly, it’s just such a huge, huge story.”
So enormous that Horton along with his wife, historian Lois E. Horton, penned the companion book featuring additional details and narrative stories.
“I hope people can look at this project in a holistic context and keep going back to it,” said series producer Dante J. James.
“African Americans have the right and, armed with the necessary knowledge, can take pride in the way that enslaved people maintained, as best they could, their families, their spirituality, developed a new culture, brought new technology to this country and were an essential element in this nation becoming the economic and culture power that it is today.”