"Slavery is at the core of what America is."—James O. Horton
Some people considered it a conspiracy: blacks and whites teaming together to steal rightful property out from under the noses of its rightful owners. Of course, the property in question was human beings. And the stealing? In truth, those human beings, slaves, were mostly on their own, forced to traverse dangerous ground alone, occasionally finding help from complete strangers. And even when these slaves found their way to their "conductors," they were often at greater risk from betrayal or fugitive slave hunters.
It is estimated that as many as 100,000 slaves tried to escape along the loose network known informally as the "Underground Railroad." But many, perhaps half, never made it. The story of this conspiracy is a quintessentially American story of how a resourceful few risked everything for their own freedom and the freedom of others.
The details of this elaborate conspiracy form the backbone of Underground Railroad, a 92 minute documentary for the History Channel. Alfre Woodard (who also turned up as Harriet Tubman in a mediocre 1994 television movie about the Railroad) hosts the usual slate of historians, archival pictures, and readings from the period in the style of a Ken Burns documentary. Although Underground Railroad tends to lack Burns' lyricism, it succeeds pretty well on its own merits. Well-organized and briskly paced, it walks viewers through the history of resistance against American slavery, from the century prior to the Revolution right up to the Civil War.
While the more familiar figures of the movement are covered (Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman), the documentary does a fine job at covering territory that might be less familiar to viewers. We learn about the large numbers of escaped slaves who settled in Florida with Indian tribes or Spanish settlers. Woodard walks us through the lyrics of a slave lullaby that hides secret instructions for an escape route. We hear tales of unsung heroes like William Still, who harbored over 2000 fugitive slaves in his Philadelphia home. While some of the more gruesome details of white retribution are glossed over, and we hear very little about the more violent insurrectionists like John Brown or Nat Turner (who is never even mentioned), the documentary sticks to its focus and covers the risks and rewards of the Underground Railroad itself.
Perhaps the best-known figure of the Abolitionist movement is Frederick Douglass. History Channel includes a fairly reverent episode of A&E's Biography series on Douglass as a bonus feature on this disc, along with a few text pieces on other aspects of the Abolitionist movement. If nothing else, learning about this American hero, "the conscience of the nation," as one historian puts it, is worth the price of this disc by itself. Douglass encapsulates everything you need to know about America: born as a slave (his father was the white plantation master), he learned to read, fled to freedom, and embarked on a career as a powerful orator for the Abolitionist cause. Although the documentary skims his post-Civil War career a bit too much, simply pointing out that he jockeyed for a government position and went out on the lecture circuit a lot (in reality, Douglass remained a tireless campaigner for equal rights for both blacks and women), it hits the high points of an important life. Douglass embodies the spirit of revolution, the drive to rise on the strength of one's talents, and the patriotism that only comes from the power to speak about what is wrong in the country you love, only to make it right. In other words, everything about America that really counts.
History Channel has done a respectable job pairing up Underground Railroad with this biography of Frederick Douglass. Both are certainly worth a look, and will hopefully spur viewers to learn more about this crucial area of our country's history.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Biography: Frederick Douglass
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