For a limited time, viewers can watch PBS’ The Abolitionists online. The Abolitionists is an educational docudrama that retells the story of those Americans who first opposed the enslavement of black people in the United States.
Last week, part one of the series introduced viewers to abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke, John Brown and Frederick Douglass. This week, Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery and met a man whose work he “loved”-- William Lloyd Garrison.
Douglass escaped the “peculiar institution” of slavery with the help of a freed slave in Baltimore. Anna Murray sold a feather bed and sewed Douglass a sailor’s outfit. And in that disguise the two made their way to New York.
The PBS docudrama doesn’t explore or mention much Murray and Douglass’s marriage or children. The focus is tight on Douglass’ first meeting with Garrison and suggests the two connected because both men were raised without a meaningful or positive connection to their biological mothers.
Garrison inducted Douglass into his abolitionist circle. Douglass spoke publicly and firsthand on enslaved peoples' experiences. Before long, Douglass had grown weary of speaking about life as a slave because he wanted to publicly denounce U.S. slavery. In 1845, he published his autobiography.
In a short while, Frederick Douglass was a household name in the United States. His slave owner, Thomas Auld, wanted to recapture Douglass and send him back to work in the fields. Douglass had risked his life time and again when he lectured at abolitionists' meetings. But after he revealed the harsh conditions of slavery and the exposed his slave owner as a cruel human being, he fled to England to save his life.
In England, Douglass was a celebrity who felt great obligation to the enslaved back in the U.S. He returned to the United States in 1847 with big goals in mind. He wanted his own paper and when he sensed that Garrison wouldn't approve, Douglass refused to mention it to Garrison, the man who had mentored and befriended him for years.
Garrison was deeply hurt that Douglass hadn’t confided in him about his plans. Douglass didn't have the publishing experience that Garrison did and when it looked like Douglass' venture would financially bust (Douglass had mortgaged his home), he got help from a friend in England, Julia Griffiths.
Griffiths got Douglass’s finances and his paper, The North Star, in order. But then rumors spread quickly that Douglass and Griffiths were involved. Douglass ignored the rumors and continued his work. The rift between Garrison and Douglass widened when Garrison published rumors of Douglass' and Griffiths' relationship.
Meanwhile, a woman in Ohio, Harriet Beecher Stowe was raising her seven children in Ohio. She was dismayed by fugitive slave laws which allowed the capture and enslavement of freed blacks. She also had experienced the death of her 18 month old during a cholera epidemic. She reckoned the loss was akin to the loss an enslaved women felt when her children were sold.
As Douglass’ fame and notoriety spread, the US war against Mexico had secured a vast new territory from New Mexico to California. The abolitionists felt certain slavery had met its final days when the new state of California declared itself a state free from slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe had published Uncle Tom's Cabin a book told from the perspective of slavery's victims. The book was made into a stage play and financially freed a woman who'd been nurturing and raising children since the age of 21.
John Brown, meanwhile, introduced the idea of violence to free captive blacks. Douglass wasn't on board at first, he feared retribution. Furthermore, Douglass’ published narrative highlighted the shame of slavery and argued that slavery brought out the worst in white slave owners.
Brown respectfully submitted to Douglass that all of his good intentions, the desire to be better than the violent slave owners hadn’t resulted in the freedom of one slave.
Next week, John Brown is captured and executed, Lincoln is elected and slavery is abolished.
Watch episodes one and two now.
photo: Frederick Douglass circa 1847-1852. image credit: Wikipedia