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TV Series Explores Impact of Slavery on US History

In honor of Black History Month, public television stations across the United States are showing a new series chronicling the history of slavery and its economic impact on the United States. Much of the new information in the series grew out of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

The four hour series, Slavery and the Making of America seeks to dispel myths and highlight little known facts by interweaving scholarly commentary with narration by movie star Morgan Freeman as actors dramatize scenes from history.

The opening hour of the series focuses on Africans brought to the colony of Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. James Horton, professor of American Studies at George Washington University, is co-author of the companion book to the series. He says many people are surprised to discover the first African immigrants were not slaves, but were indentured servants.

"They would sell their service for a number of years, most often about seven years," he explains. "But the most important thing is there was an end to it and it was not passed on to your children."

The Civil Rights movement spurred a new generation of historians to explore African American history and dig deeper into long overlooked historical documents concerning slaves, including court records and federal archives.

The slave community was not monolithic as it is often portrayed. Slaves came from different nations and diverse cultures and religions in Africa. Many first generation slaves could not even communicate with each other because they spoke different languages

Deeper research, Professor Horton says, revealed the complexity of the slave community.

"For example, female slave had issues that they had to deal with that male slaves did not necessarily," he notes. "We started to learn more about children who were slaves, more about the relationship between slaves and free blacks."

Slavery and the Making of America focuses on individuals, telling the stories of slaves who sought to change their conditions. One of these was Mum Bett, a domestic worker in the northeastern colony of Massachusetts at the time of the American Revolution. Mum Betts' story demonstrates that although the northern and southern states fought a bloody civil war over slavery from 1861 until 1865, northerners at one time owned slaves also. Mum Betts sued for her freedom in court and won.

PROGRAM NARRATOR: "Revolution and the rhetoric of liberty were in the air. Mumm Bett and others like her would soon begin to exhale this new language."

PROGRAM NARRATOR: "The natural liberty of man is to be free."

The Civil War is the backdrop for one of the most dramatic stories in the series, the escape of Robert Smalls. He was a slave who worked on ships docked in Charleston, South Carolina during the Civil War.

"He and a number of his fellows and their families went aboard a ship named the Planter after the work was finished and they sailed that ship out of Charleston Harbor passed the Confederate defenses and eventually delivered the ship to the U.S. Navy," says Mr. Horton. "In fact, when he arrived he said to the U.S. forces that greeted him "I thought Old Abe might be able to use the Planter."

The series chronicles the economic impact of slavery on the United States and on Europe, where cotton produced in the South helped fuel the Industrial Revolution. Professor Horton calls slavery the main event of U.S. economic history, starting with the production of tobacco and rice in the southern colonies.

"As we move into the 19th century and as the United State starts to expand to the west, slavery expanded into that area and that area became very important for cotton growing," he adds. "Now cotton was tremendously important in terms of the economic development of the nation. By 1815, cotton was the most valuable thing that the entire nation exported to the world. By 1840, cotton was more valuable than everything that the United States of America exported to the world put together. So slave labor starts to provide the basis of the economy of the nation."

Information on the series can be found in the companion book, also called Slavery and the Making of America, and on DVD and the PBS website.