Slavery and the Making of America is a four-part series documenting the history of American slavery from its beginnings in the British colonies to its end in the Southern states and the years of post-Civil War Reconstruction.
Drawing on a wealth of recent scholarship, it looks at slavery as an integral part of a developing nation, challenging the long held notion that slavery was exclusively a Southern enterprise.
At the same time, by focusing on the remarkable stories of individual slaves, it offers new perspectives on the slave experience and testifies to the active role that Africans and African Americans took in surviving their bondage and shaping their own lives.
1. The Downward Spiral. Episode one opens in the 1620s with the introduction of 11 men of African descent and mixed ethnicity into slavery in New Amsterdam. Working side by side with white indentured servants, these men labored to lay the foundations of the Dutch colony that would later become New York. There were no laws defining the limitations imposed on slaves at this point in time. Enslaved people, such as Anthony d'Angola, Emmanuel Driggus, and Frances Driggus could bring suits to court, earn wages, and marry.
2. Liberty in the Air. From the 1740s to the 1830s, the institution of slavery continued to support economic development. As the slave population reproduced, American planters became less dependent on the African slave trade. Ensuing generations of slaves developed a unique culture that blended elements of African and American life. Episode two follows the paths of several African Americans, including Thomas Jefferson's slave Jupiter, Colonel Tye, Elizabeth Freeman, David Walker, and Maria Stewart, as they respond to the increasingly restrictive system of slavery.
3. Seeds of Destruction. One by one the Northern states, led by Vermont in 1777, adopted laws to abolish and phase out slavery. Simultaneously, slavery in the Southern United States entered the period of its greatest expansion. Episode three, which starts at the beginning of the 1800s, examines slavery's increasing divisiveness in America as the nation develops westward and cotton replaces tobacco as the country's most valuable crop.
4. The Challenge of Freedom. Episode four looks at Civil War and Reconstruction through the experiences of South Carolina slave Robert Smalls. It chronicles Smalls' daring escape to freedom, his military service, and his tenure as a congressman after the war. As the events of Smalls' life unfold, the complexities of this period in American history are revealed. The episode shows the transformation of the war from a struggle for union to a battle over slavery.