Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture, explains why the Created Equal films matter to all Americans.
As part of the Endowment’s Bridging Cultures initiative, “Created Equal: America’s Civil Rights Struggle” is a packaged set of NEH-funded films on Civil Rights history offered at 473 communities across the nation. Launched in 2013 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, “Created Equal” aims to encourage public conversations about the changing meanings of freedom and equality in U.S. history. Four powerful documentary films (The Abolitionists, Slavery by Another Name, Freedom Riders and The Loving Story) will be accompanied by in-depth programming resources to help guide productive community discussions.
Deeply grounded in humanities scholarship, these films tell a remarkable story—about grassroots activism, about the power of individuals to effect change, and about the changing contexts in which Americans have understood and struggled with concepts of freedom and equality.
Slavery in America began when the first African slaves were brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, to aid in the production of such lucrative crops as tobacco. Slavery was practiced throughout the American colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries, and African-American slaves helped build the economic foundations of the new nation. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 solidified the central importance of slavery to the South’s economy. By the mid-19th century, America’s westward expansion, along with a growing abolition movement in the North, would provoke a great debate over slavery that would tear the nation apart in the bloody American Civil War (1861-65). Though the Union victory freed the nation’s 4 million slaves, the legacy of slavery continued to influence American history, from the tumultuous years of Reconstruction (1865-77) to the civil rights movement that emerged in the 1960s, a century after emancipation.
The U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, was established in 1865 by Congress to help former black slaves and poor whites in the South in the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War (1861-65). Some 4 million slaves gained their freedom as a result of the Union victory in the war, which left many communities in ruins and destroyed the South’s plantation-based economy. The Freedmen’s Bureau provided food, housing and medical aid, established schools and offered legal assistance. It also attempted to settle former slaves on Confederate lands confiscated or abandoned during the war. However, the bureau was prevented from fully carrying out its programs due to a shortage of funds and personnel, along with the politics of race and Reconstruction. In 1872, Congress, in part under pressure from white Southerners, shut the bureau.
With the southern economy in disarray after the abolition of slavery and the devastation of the Civil War, conflict arose between many white landowners attempting to reestablish a labor force and freed blacks seeking economic independence and autonomy. Many former slaves expected the federal government to give them a certain amount of land as compensation for all the work they had done during the slavery era. Union General William T. Sherman had encouraged this expectation in early 1865 by granting a number of freed men 40 acres each of the abandoned land left in the wake of his army. During Reconstruction, however, the conflict over labor resulted in the sharecropping system, in which black families would rent small plots of land in return for a portion of their crop, to be given to the landowner at the end of each year.
One of the most important aspects of Reconstruction was the active participation of African Americans (including thousands of former slaves) in the political, economic and social life of the South. The era was to a great extent defined by their quest for autonomy and equal rights under the law, both as individuals and for the black community as a whole. During Reconstruction, some 2,000 African Americans held public office, from the local level all the way up to the U.S. Senate, though they never achieved representation in government proportionate to their numbers.
The goal of the abolitionist movement was the immediate emancipation of all slaves and the end of racial discrimination and segregation. Advocating for immediate emancipation distinguished abolitionists from more moderate anti-slavery advocates who argued for gradual emancipation, and from free-soil activists who sought to restrict slavery to existing areas and prevent its spread further west. Radical abolitionism was partly fueled by the religious fervor of the Second Great Awakening, which prompted many people to advocate for emancipation on religious grounds. Abolitionist ideas became increasingly prominent in Northern churches and politics beginning in the 1830s, which contributed to the regional animosity between North and South leading up to the Civil War.
John Brown was a radical abolitionist who believed in the violent overthrow of the slavery system. During the Bleeding Kansas conflicts, Brown and his sons led attacks on pro-slavery residents. Justifying his actions as the will of God, Brown soon became a hero in the eyes of Northern extremists and was quick to capitalize on his growing reputation. By early 1858, he had succeeded in enlisting a small “army” of insurrectionists whose mission was to foment rebellion among the slaves. In 1859, Brown and 21 of his followers attacked and occupied the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Their goal was to capture supplies and use them to arm a slave rebellion. Brown was captured during the raid and later hanged, but not before becoming an anti-slavery icon.
The Union victory in the Civil War may have given some 4 million slaves their freedom, but African Americans faced a new onslaught of obstacles and injustices during the Reconstruction era (1865-1877). By late 1865, when the 13th Amendment officially outlawed the institution of slavery, the question of freed blacks’ status in the postwar South was still very much unresolved. Under the lenient Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson, white southerners reestablished civil authority in the former Confederate states in 1865 and 1866. They enacted a series of restrictive laws known as “black codes,” which were designed to restrict freed blacks’ activity and ensure their availability as a labor force now that slavery had been abolished. For instance, many states required blacks to sign yearly labor contracts; if they refused, they risked being arrested as vagrants and fined or forced into unpaid labor. Northern outrage over the black codes helped undermine support for Johnson’s policies, and by late 1866 control over Reconstruction had shifted to the more radical wing of the Republican Party in Congress.