One of the most general perceptions that I received from my high school history days in the 1960's concerning the fate of black slaves in America was that they essentially passively waited for the Union armies to free them during the process of the Civil War in the 1860's. In short, blacks had no pre-history as a people who struggled for freedom in their own right but were merely the victims of history. Of course, since those days I have made it my business to find out the real story of slave resistance and although there are many parts that are lost to history we now know that as least some slaves in some situations found ways to break their bondage. Aided during the past few decades by serious scholarly research into the subject we have a more rounded view of the dynamics of slavery in ante bellum American society. This well done History Channel docu-drama, hosted by actress Alfre Woodard, presents one part of that struggle- the work of the Underground Railroad- the fight of courageous individual blacks, aided sometimes by their Northern supporters, to `follow the drinking gourd' North to freedom.
This presentation, complete with the `talking head' commentators that inevitably accompany such efforts, goes back to the early days of slavery and demonstrates that there was always an element of the struggle for freedom by black slaves from the earliest days of European settlement in North America. Moreover, a cadre of freed blacks who were the catalyst for the freedom struggle developed from early on as well. However, the black anti-slavery movement (and for that matter the white part of the anti-slavery movement) did not get energized until the early 19th century in response to the increasing use of slaves to cultivate the expanding cotton crop on Southern plantations. From then on the propaganda fight for emancipation took many forms but basically continued unabated until the Civil War militarily resolved the issue against slavery.
One of the benefits of this production is a well though out exposition of the role that blacks played in this anti-slavery process. Not just the now well-known names like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman but the little known Henry Garnet, John Stills and John Parker. Moreover, whatever social distinctions could be drawn, even by those within the anti-slavery movement, between blacks and whites it represented the first serious integrated social movement in this country. Needless to say such efforts have been far and few in the history of this country. It is clear that there would be no underground railroad stretching, at it needed to at times, all the way to Canada without such integrated efforts. Aiding that clarity is mention of the Midwest, especially the Ohio River towns, as routes to freedom as well as the more well known eastern coastal routes.
A major highlight here was a serious exposition of the role of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in curtaining the effectiveness of the Underground Railroad, causing the first seeds of irreconcilable conflict between North and South and contributing to the overweening and disproportionate role that the South played in national politics. Some worthwhile time was spent detailing the effects that such legislation had on ordinary citizens who wished not to be complicit with the slaveholders. The various efforts by Northerners, and not just hard core abolitionists, to resist the slave catchers as they headed north is dramatically presented. The well-known Boston case of Anthony Brooks is the focal point for this section.
If there is one criticism that I have of this presentation though it goes back to that first sentence of this entry. If we now know that blacks themselves, as ultimately demonstrated by the enlistment of 200, 000 black Union soldiers in the Civil War, were not mere passive victims of slavery there was a tendency of this presentation to over play the quest for freedom by blacks. One of the hard facts of human history is that oppression oppresses. That little truism conceals this truth- not everyone, and maybe not even many of those oppressed, in the great scheme of things, can break out of the struggle to merely exist to rise out and rebel. Or even flee. This was the vanguard, a precious vanguard, but a vanguard nevertheless. That vanguard expressed that suppressed urge for freedom that we assume beats in every human heart. That is the value of this docu-drama. Watch it and learn a few things about our common history.