Slavery: A Pivotal Era in American History

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"Slavery was no side show in American history, it was the main event," Says James Oliver Horton in the new PBS documentary, Slavery and the Making of America. In the four-part series, Horton, a professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University, along with nearly 30 other scholars, examines the lasting impact of the institution of slavery on American society.

The PBS series, produced by Thirteen/WNET and narrated by award-winning actor Morgan Freeman, demonstrates the integral role of slaves in shaping the American landscape - both literally and figuratively. Personal stories are used to demonstrate the tragic lives of slaves and their never-ending quest to be treated with human dignity. The scholarly commentary and reenactments throughout the documentary provide a unique perspective on the slave experience.

The first episode, The Downward Spiral, looks at the beginning of slavery with the arrival of 11 African men in New Amsterdam (which is now Manhattan) in 1619. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries slavery will evolve into a violent and dehumanizing institution.

The drafting of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution discussed in the second episode, Liberty in The Air, makes Blacks even more intolerant of America's hypocrisy. Abolitionist David Walker gives voice to this discontent in his 1829 pamphlet, "An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, but in Particular and Most Expressly to Those of the United States." The appeal is considered one of the first expressions of Black nationalism in the country.

The documentary emphasizes that slavery was not just a problem of the South. As demonstrated in the third hour of the series, Seeds of Destruction, Northern insurance companies insured slaves as property and the cotton from the South fueled a profitable textile industry in the North. Slavery, in essence, was an American problem.

The nation's whole existence depended on the free labor of slaves. But despite their value to the country, the 1857 landmark Dred Scott decision - in which the Supreme Court ruled that Blacks, by virtue of their race, were not persons before the law and had no rights that the White man was bound to respect - affirmed their place in society.

Nevertheless, African Americans would have a brief taste of freedom and power. In The Challenge of Freedom, the series' last hour, Blacks are involved in the political process during the Reconstruction era as mayors, police chiefs, congressmen and even senators.

But the progress wouldn't last long. Southern Whites couldn't fathom the idea that Black people could actually possess leadership qualities. The fact that these former slaves were articulate, intelligent and talented enough to run states was difficult to comprehend for Whites, even those who lived in the "liberal" North. …