(RNS) — Frederick Douglass called the Bible one of his most important resources and was involved in Black church circles as he spent his life working to end what he called the “peculiar institution” of slavery.
Harriet Tubman sensed divine inspiration amid her actions to free herself and dozens of others who had been enslaved in the American South.
The two abolitionists are subjects of a twin set of documentaries, “Becoming Frederick Douglass” and “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom,” co-productions of Maryland Public Television and Firelight Films and released by PBS this month (October).
“I think that the faith journey of both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were a huge part of their story,” Stanley Nelson, co-director with Nicole London of the two hourlong films, said in an interview with Religion News Service.
“Religion for both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass was the foundation in many ways of who they are.”
Stanley Nelson. Photo by Corey Nickols
The films, whose production took more than three years in part due to a COVID-19 hiatus, detail the horrors of slavery both Tubman and Douglass witnessed. Tubman saw her sister being sold to a new enslaver and torn away from her children. A young Douglass hid in a closet as he watched his aunt being beaten. They each expressed beliefs in the providence of God playing a role in the gaining of their freedom.
Scholars in both films spoke of the faith of these “original abolitionists,” as University of Connecticut historian Manisha Sinha called people like Tubman, who took to pulpits and lecterns as they strove to end the ownership of members of their race and sought to convince white people to join their cause.“The Bible was foundational to Douglass as a writer, orator, and activist,” Harvard University scholar John Stauffer told Religion News Service in an email, expanding on his comments in the film about the onetime lay preacher. “It influenced him probably more than any other single work.”
Frederick Douglass, circa 1847-52. Photo by Samuel J. Miller, courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago Stauffer said the holy book, which shaped Douglass’ talks and writings, was the subject of lessons at a Sunday school he organized to teach other slaves.
“It’s impossible to appreciate or understand Douglass without recognizing the enormous influence the Bible had on him and his extraordinary knowledge of it,” Stauffer added.
Actor Wendell Pierce provides the voice of Douglass in the films, quoting him saying in an autobiography that William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly abolitionist newspaper The Liberator “took a place in my heart second only to the Bible.”
The documentary notes that Douglass was part of Baltimore’s African Methodist Episcopal Church circles that included many free Black people. Scholars say he met his future wife Anna Murray, who encouraged him to pursue his own freedom, in that city.
“The AME Church was central in not only creating a space for African Americans to worship but creating a network of support for African Americans who were committed to anti-slavery,” said Georgetown University historian Marcia Chatelain, in the film.
The Douglass documentary is set to premiere Tuesday (Oct. 11) on PBS. It and the Tubman documentary, which first aired Oct. 4, will be available to stream for free for 30 days on PBS.org and the PBS video app after their initial air dates. After streaming on PBS’ website and other locations for a month, the films, which include footage from Maryland’s Eastern Shore where both Douglass and Tubman were born, will then be available on PBS Passport.
- Poster for “Becoming Frederick Douglass.” Courtesy image
- Poster for “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom.” Courtesy image
The Tubman documentary opens with her words, spoken by actress Alfre Woodard.
“God’s time is always near,” she says, in words she told writer Ednah Dow Littlehale Cheney around 1850. “He set the North Star in the heavens. He gave me the strength in my limbs. He meant I should be free.”
Tubman, who early in life sustained a serious injury and experienced subsequent seizures and serious headaches, often had visions she interpreted as “signposts from God,” said Rutgers University historian Erica A. Dunbar in the film.
Portrait of Harriet Tubman taken in Auburn, New York. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress. The woman known as “Moses” freed slaves by leading them through nighttime escapes and later as a scout for the Union Army in the Civil War.
“She never accepted praise or responsibility, even, for these great feats,” Dunbar said. “She always saw herself as a vessel of her God.”
But, nevertheless, praise for Tubman came from Douglass, who noted in an 1868 letter to her that while his work was often public, hers was primarily in secret, recognized only by the “heartfelt, ‘God bless you’” from people she had helped reach freedom.
Nelson, a religiously unaffiliated man who created films about the mission work of the United Methodist Church early in his career, said the documentary helps shed light on the importance faith held for Tubman.
“It’s something that most people don’t know and so many people who see the film for the first time are kind of surprised at that,” he said in an interview. “She felt she was guided by a divine spirit and the spirit told her what to do.”
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — When an initially blinded, and nearly lifeless, 12-year-old girl found in the rubble of a church bombing was wheeled onto the 10th floor of University Hospital in Birmingham nearly 60 years ago, one of the first people to tend to the child was Rosetta “Rose” Hughes, a nurse.
It was Hughes who stayed with Sarah Collins, the “fifth little girl” in the bombing, until a doctor arrived on that momentous Sunday, as an unforgettable chapter was being etched into the city’s history.
Hughes was on duty on Sept. 15, 1963, when a bomb demolished the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing Addie Mae Collins, 14; Denise McNair, 11; Carole Rosamond Robertson, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14 and injuring dozens of parishioners.
One of the surviving girls was Sarah Collins, sister of Addie Mae. On that Sunday, staff at the emergency clinic at University Hospital received the bodies of the four children killed and tended to scores of others who were injured. Sarah Collins was among the wounded, and one of the first to see her was Hughes.
“When I saw her that Sunday, … she was just covered with soot and ashes (and blood),” Hughes recalled in an exclusive interview with The Birmingham Times. “(It) looked like she was gone. … I thought she wasn’t going to wake up. … She was not moving.”
That was 59 years ago.
On Thursday, Birmingham commemorated the explosion that proved to be a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement, became a catalyst for change in the United States, and ultimately prompted global efforts for equality and human rights.
Hughes, who turns 101 in October and still lives in Birmingham, is believed to be one of the last remaining workers on duty at the hospital the day of the bombing.
Last month, for the first time since the bombing, Hughes and Rudolph, now 71, reunited for their first one-on-one, lengthy discussion of the events on that pivotal day in world history.
“It’s more than a blessing to meet her because she took care of me,” Rudolph said during the interview. “When I was younger, I didn’t know how she looked or anything because I was practically blind then. So, just to see her now and know her is a blessing. She’s looking real good.
Hughes recalled working on the 10th floor of University Hospital, which was known as the “Eye” floor, when young Sarah was wheeled in.
“I remember they brought her to the emergency room, and I was working on the Eye floor. We had the surgery up there, and they sent her to eye surgery. … She was on a stretcher, and I took care of her until they called the doctor to come in,” said Hughes, who recalls the doctor’s name only as “Pearson” and that he arrived with a toddler.
Medical staff from across the city were being called in to help with the influx of patients. Many of the doctors were scheduled to be off that weekend, and that likely included Dr. Pearson, who came to the hospital with his son. While Hughes could not remember the doctor’s first name, University of Alabama at Birmingham records show a “Dr. Robert S. Pearson” as a resident in ophthalmology at the facility in the early 1960s.
“It was a Sunday morning, and the doctor’s wife had gone to church, so he was watching the baby and had to bring him (to the hospital). … I babysat while (Dr. Pearson) checked on Sarah,” Hughes recalled.
“(Dr. Pearson) came back out and sent her back downstairs to the where she was examined at first. … They took her back on a stretcher. She was still asleep … and I didn’t have to do anything. I just had to watch her. She was also covered with ashes and smoke.”
Even though she was 12 at the time of the bombing, Collins-Rudolph, still has vivid memories of what happened.
“That’s one day I will never forget,” she said. “I remember, you know, when they operated on my eyes. … I remember when they took the glass out of my eyes, glass from my face. … The doctor had told me there were about 20 to 26 pieces of glass in my face altogether.
“I know when the doctor operated on my eyes, they put this bandage on it. … Maybe about a week later, they took the bandage off. At first, the doctor asked me, ‘What do you see out of your left eye?’ I told him, ‘I just see a little light.’ He asked me the same question (about my right eye). I said, ‘I can’t see anything.’ So, he said I was blinded instantly in my right eye.
“When (the doctor) was talking to my mother, I remember hearing him tell her that eventually I would start seeing out of my left eye because I was real young and the sight would start coming back. When I was getting ready to leave the hospital, I remember (the doctor) telling (my mother) to bring me back in February because they were going to have to remove my right eye, and that’s what they did. I went back in February, and that’s when they removed my right eye and fit me with a prosthetic.”
Sarah has had problems with her eyesight for the past 59 years. She developed glaucoma in her left eye and was initially given drops for the eye.
“That didn’t work too good, and they tried another drop. It didn’t work too good either, so they tried a third drop,” she recalled. “When the drops stopped doing any good, (the doctor) said he would have to operate and give me an incision in that (left) eye. They put an incision in there to drain the fluid. … If he had not done that, I would have gone blind.”
Even today, Rudolph still must visit an eye doctor every six months.
“I had to pay for that out of my own pocket,” she said. “I would always wonder to myself, … ‘I was in that bombing, and I got hurt. How come I had to foot these bills by myself when it wasn’t my fault?’”
While the state apologized to Rudolph two years ago, it hasn’t yet honored her request for restitution.
At the reunion with Hughes, husband George Rudolph, who has been at Sarah Rudolph’s side for the past two decades and knows about survival after his first tour of duty as a 19-year-old during the Vietnam War, said his wife has strength he has not seen.
“For my wife to survive what she went through and not hold any animosity toward the KKK because she forgave them, that’s a strong person,” he said. “She didn’t want to hold her hatred in her heart for those Klansmen. When she said, ‘I forgive you,’ that was such a powerful statement. Very powerful. … She is just a strong Black lady and amazing. I love my wife. I thank God for Sarah.”
“Liminal” is defined as the space between. It is the no-longer before, and the not-yet other. It is the space where we find ourselves caught between the light of Juneteenth and the shadow of July 4th. We are caught in the space between. No longer enslaved on plantations, but not yet with a freedom fully realized. It’s an imaginative space; an emergent space; and a space for reflection.
It is in this space that I am reminded of the Statue of Liberty, and the broken chains at her feet. I first learned about the chains in 2017, at a training in Chicago led by Dr. Joy DeGruy. She told the story of how the chains were part of the original vision of the statue, how American financiers insisted that the chains be removed, and how the sculptor still managed to sneak the chains in under Lady Liberty’s garments, lying broken at her feet. She told the story how the National Park Services didn’t talk about the chains unless someone happened to ask. The chains were not part of the Park Services’ narrative about the Statue. In the Statue’s 135-year history, information about the chains have only officially been included in the park service’s literature and website for about the past six years.
Yasmin Sabina Khan goes even deeper in her work, “Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty.” Conceived in 1865 by Édouard de Laboulaye, sculpted by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi over the course of approximately 20 years, the Statue of Liberty was unveiled at New York’s Ellis Island as “Liberty Enlightening the World” in October of 1886. At the base of the Statue, out of view from anyone looking from ground level, lie the broken chains of slavery. Visible only from helicopter or drone, the chains weren’t spoken of. Laboulaye was an ardent abolitionist. With the end of the US Civil War in 1865, Laboulaye imagined a gift that would embody the significance of the liberation of those who were enslaved. Bartholdi’s original model placed the torch of liberty in one hand, and broken chains in the other. The Statue of Liberty’s entire visual and artistic vocabulary was meant to both celebrate and honor the freedom of those enslaved in America. But financiers balked at the idea of chains placed anywhere on the Statue, and after profuse opposition by Bartholdi, the chains were removed, replaced by a tablet emblazoned with the Roman numerals for July 4, 1776. Since they aren’t easily visible, and since there was no concerted public effort to connect the statue with the narrative of the abolition of chattel slavery, the memory of it’s connections faded. And for the past 135 years, barely anyone remembered the chains.
For Black people within this liminal march of history, the Statue has long sat as a symbol of hypocrisy—celebrating a freedom that became connected to a honoring of ideals that have yet to be realized. There’s much to unpack about our historical reactions to the unveiling of the Statue, but there’s also much to be said about the loss of memory. The obscuring and loss of communal memory around the presence, history, and meaning of the chains at the feet of the Statue of Liberty is important because it reminds us that memory is important. And not only is memory important, memory is crucial in this liminal space between freedom and freedom. Memory is what helps us imagine. Memory is what helps us create. It’s something we can use to construct and define a new world, a new freedom, a new way of being. We must tap into it.
In his book, “Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance” Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes, “creative imagination is one of the greatest of re-membering practices…” and that “memory is the link between the past and the present, between space and time, and it is the base of our dreams.” Harnessing memory is our work. These broken chains at our feet, the light of Juneteenth, the long shadow of July 4th—this liminal space—all of it is here to remind us that we have worlds to build. We have a freedom to define—to make clear and meaningful. It is within this creative tension where we have the possibility to gain a clear-eyed view of what a full realization of freedom could look like, both collectively as a community and a country, and particularly in the living out of our individual lives and individual situations. But understand, there can be no clear expression of freedom without integrating communal memory into the foundation of work.
If memory is the base of our dreams, what are our dreams of freedom? What if we could transform freedom in the same ways that we’ve always transformed culture? In this liminal space of history, we’ve seen Black creativity, Black genius, Black art, and Black joy shift and drive culture (and economies) around the world. Have we fired that same ingenuity in our definitions of freedom? What would the world look like, if we defined and constructed freedom based on our criteria, our imaginations, our memory? It might look something like a society built on the idea of thriving rather than destruction. It might look something like a society built around dignity—of humans, animals, and the earth. It might look something like systems built to nourish and sustain life rather than profit. Freedom could look like so many different visions of more and better. The dreaming is up to us.
We have work to do. We have worlds to build. We have a freedom to create. And as we go about protesting and advocating for our lives, here in this liminal space between freedom that was and freedom that might yet be, may we remember that the work we have to do, the worlds we are building, and the freedom we are creating, cannot reach their fullest expression without our communal memory.
Let us remember the chains broken at our feet, so that we may creatively continue in our generation’s leg of the journey toward the light of freedom fully realized.
Imagine being a slave, and on this particular day, Union Army Major General Gordon Granger forced your master to set you free immediately! You and your master may have heard about the Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, but it didn’t free you.
Gaining physical freedom is one thing. But how did formerly enslaved people gain emotional freedom while avoiding the heavy chains of emotional slavery due to the incredible injustice of their past and present reality? What possible relationship could or would they have with their former master?
What about you? As many are focused on celebrating Juneteenth and freedom, are you still in emotional chains due to injustice? How do you go on functioning while injustice continues? Black people are still being shot. Churches and schools are targets for mass murders.
Maybe you’re not in physical chains, but are you emotionally enslaved?
Want your freedom? When thinking of slavery, Grandma Shuler, my dad’s mom, always comes to mind. She was born in 1879 in South Carolina where an unofficial slavery still existed! This eighty-five-year-old’s smile and lack of bitterness profoundly impacted me when I was ten years old.
I considered becoming a Black Panther because the Ku Klux Klan ran from them. It was difficult for Blacks to be anything other than sharecroppers (a new kind of slavery) immediately after slavery was abolished. Grandma and Grandpa and their adult children lived on the same land where their parents had been enslaved. Their house’s foundation was a slave shack with an outhouse. This was 1964!
My dad has some of Grandma’s genes. He and many Black men like him had a quiet dignity no matter how badly they were treated in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. They didn’t fight back or curse at their oppressors. Injustice couldn’t break their spirits.
But how do you reconcile Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and the recent shootings at the school in Uvalde, TX, and the grocery store in Buffalo, NY?
Initially, I felt that part of me died when I heard about the struggle and murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Certainly, I wasn’t free emotionally. Ironically, God spoke to me through a radio interview with two White humbled co-hosts who had done their homework. They got me talking about these murders. Surprisingly, it was therapeutic. I didn’t realize I needed to talk about it instead of keeping it inside. Many Black men don’t process it externally, which is slowly killing them.
How should we handle injustice when peaceful efforts require more discipline than giving in to our emotions? History shows us there is power in “radical love and forgiveness.” When Dylann Roof murdered nine members of Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., during a prayer meeting in June 2015, many surviving friends and family shocked the nation when they chose to forgive. Emmanuel AME is one of the oldest Black congregations in the South and has a long history of anti-slavery activism, civil rights protests, and ongoing political engagement. Even the late pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the victims shot that day, was a state senator who pushed for police to wear body cameras. So why forgive? Chris Singleton, who lost his mother in the attack, told USA Today, “After seeing what happened and the reason why it happened, and after seeing how people could forgive, I truly hope that people will see that it wasn’t just us saying words,” Singleton says. “I know, for a fact, that it was something greater than us, using us to bring our city together.”
When we don’t forgive, we put ourselves in emotional slavery. Our unforgiveness subconsciously permeates every relationship – and I’ve found that relationships are the key to healing racial divides. A freedom that can never be stolen is not about how people treat me. It’s all about how I choose to respond to it. In my latest book, Life-Changing, Cross-Cultural Friendships, which I co-wrote with Gary Chapman, author The 5 Love Languages, we talk in depth about our journey of an authentic friendship through some of the most racially divisive times in history and provide a roadmap for others to do the same.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We must develop and maintain the capacity to
forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is
some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this,
we are less prone to hate our enemies.”
My grandma couldn’t force White people or anyone else to give her justice, equality, or simply human courtesy, yet she continued to smile. Grandma was not weak. When she spoke, people moved. This barely five-foot-tall woman lived with her six-foot two-inch husband, raised seven children, and could still shoot her rifle with accuracy well into her eighties. She couldn’t go to the hospital to give birth. She and Grandpa lived off the land to survive and fed their children without a formal education. Imagine all that she saw, being born in 1879 and living until 1971. Her freedom was not dependent on White people giving her their version of justice. She treated all people with respect. She said, “As I’m treating others with respect, even some mean White people, I’m loving God and respecting myself.”
And, of course, Grandma smiled.
About the. Author
Clarence Shuler is the President/CEO of BLR: Building Lasting Relationships. He’s authored ten books. He and Dr. Gary Chapman speak together at The 5 Love Languages, Date Night, and Life-Changing Cross-Cultural Friendship events. For more information, visit www.clarenceshuler.com.