As 2o13 marks the 150th year since President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, setting an estimated three million slaves at liberty across the nation, PBS is observing the occasion with a new documentary called The Abolitionists.
The three-part series will begin airing on Tuesday, January 8, as the network presents a production weaved together by a mix of storytelling and and dramatized role-playing.
The Abolitionists will focus on the lives of historical figures Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, John Brown and Angelina Grimké, who fought to end the inhumane treatment of African Americans in the nation despite much opposition.
“When we first began the task of tackling the history of abolitionism four years ago, we were faced with a daunting task: the movement spanned decades, the leaders were numerous, the history complicated and the scholarly literature voluminous,” explained producer Sharon Grimberg in a blog on the PBS website. “We decided that the way to grab the attention of a broad television audience was to focus on a handful of key characters — that is, to create a character-driven mini-series set against the backdrop of a tumultuous time in American history.”
She stated that at first, the documentary was set to focus solely on Douglass and Garrison because of their notable work, bravery and popularity.
“The two men — one a former slave, the other an impoverished printer — are among the greatest civil rights activists in American history,” Grimberg said. “They opened the eyes of thousands and put their families at risk to erase the sin of slavery.”
As production and planning continued, additional characters that were central to the abolitionist movement were added to the film.
“Each of these primary figures, these heroes that we behold, does come to a moment of real reckoning for themselves, where they have to make the decision, whether or not they are going to live a life of tortured silence or whether they are going to speak their minds and believe in their hearts, and go forth without any guarantee that the world will listen or will improve,” stated historian Lois Brown, who served as an adviser to the production crew.
Director and writer Rob Rapley also recently outlined that faith had much to do with the lives of the men and women that put an end to slavery in America.
“It was a time in which religion played a central role in American life with the second Great Awakening. Every one of the abolitionists was shaped very much by their faith. In fact, they would have defined themselves first by their faith before any other category,” Rapley told the Religion News Service.
He explained that some of the abolitionists of the day fought against a number of churches who denied that their behavior was sinful.
“Garrison said, ‘You are not being faithful to the Word. We are. Therefore, we must come out of the churches,” Rapley outlined. “It was actually called come-outerism: come out of the churches, come out of the government, separate ourselves from this unclean society. That was the essence of Garrison’s charge. The churches were part of the evil.”
While some cite that slavery is mentioned in the Bible, many theologians note that the employer-employee committed working relationship outlined in Scripture is not what took place in 17th century America, which was ultimately condemned as inhumane and outlawed by Lincoln.
Each segment in The Abolitionists is one hour in length, with part one airing Tuesday night on PBS.