As the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, historian Manisha Sinha of the W.E.B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies has been tapped for a three-part public television presentation titled “The Abolitionists,” being shown on successive Tuesdays beginning Jan. 8.
Part of the American Experience series, “The Abolitionists” will be presented from 9-10 p.m. on PBS stations nationwide. The series combines a documentary format with dramatic portrayals of five pivotal leaders of the movement to end slavery universally and unconditionally – Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Angelina Gimke and William Lloyd Garrison.
Sinha, a scholar of the abolitionist movement, consulted on the script for the series and is featured prominently on screen discussing the era and her upcoming book on the abolitionists. She is the author of the “The Counterrevolution of Slavery: Politics and Ideology in Antebellum South Carolina,” and editor – with Afro-American Studies professor John Bracey – of “African American Mosaic: A Documentary History from the African Slave Trade to The Twenty First Century, Vols. I and II.”
Despite the sesquicentennial interest in the abolitionists, highlighted in part by the popularity of the feature film “Lincoln,” the story of abolitionism and its passionate leaders remains far more complex that a single movie or television series can portray, says Sinha.
“I was happy with the end product though I wish we had more time to tell the entire, complex story of abolition,” said Sinha. “My one regret is that the documentary did not feature a black woman abolitionist as I had suggested.”
The three installments cover the periods from 1820-1838, when the commitment of the abolitionist leaders took shape and solidified; from 1838-1854, as the Fugitive Slave law and Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” stoked the fires of outrage among abolitionists; and 1854 to Emancipation, as events like John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry foreshadowed the war to come.
The series, according to producers, details “some of the most violent and contentious decades in American history, amid white-hot religious passions that set souls on fire, and bitter debates of the meaning of the Constitution and the nature of race.”
“It ended up telling a more mainstream story but still one that I think the broader public may not be familiar with,” said Sinha. “For instance, few people watching the movie 'Lincoln' are aware of the fact that the idea of the Thirteenth Amendment originated with abolitionists, who had agitated for emancipation long before the Civil War.
“The Abolitionists” is directed by Rob Rapley, and stars Richard Brooks, Neal Huff, Jeanine Serrailles, Kate Lyn Shiel and T. Ryder Smith. More on the production, including a preview and local viewing schedules, can be found at www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/abolitionists/