Thursday, January 17, 2013

PBS’s "Abolitionists" Draws on LCP Expertise and Collections

John Sartain, Burning of Pennsylvania Hall (Philadelphia, 1838).  Mezzotint.

To coincide with the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, on January 8 PBS aired the first segment of its three-part miniseries "The Abolitionists," which chronicles the development of the movement from the 1820s to 1865 and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The series’ creators interviewed Program in African American History Director Erica Armstrong Dunbar for her perspective on key figures in the abolitionist struggle. The program also features historical images from the Library Company’s collections illustrating the destruction of abolitionist meeting-place Pennsylvania Hall in 1838, burned to the ground by pro-slavery mobs four days after its completion.

The program follows five leading abolitionist figures — Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimke, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown — and tells their stories through an innovative mix of dramatic reenactment and documentary technique. Professor Dunbar believes the show’s creators did a good job of portraying the complexities and evolution of the long process that preceded the Emancipation Proclamation and the great bravery of the early abolitionists. Her on-air comments focus centrally on Frederick Douglass and his leadership in securing emancipation.

J.C. Wild, Pennsylvania Hall (Philadelphia, 1838). Lithograph.

The series' makers also used images from the Library Company’s collections to illustrate the narrative of Pennsylvania Hall, constructed at Sixth and Haines Streets in Philadelphia as a meeting place for local abolitionist groups and dedicated on May 14, 1838. Four days later, on the night of May 17, a mob stormed the Hall and set it on fire. Fire companies refused to fight the blaze, and the building was completely destroyed. John Caspar Wild’s ca. 1838 hand-colored lithograph and an engraving by John Sartain, a member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and a premier 19th-century Philadelphia engraver, both depict the Hall engulfed in flames.

As a supplement to the program, PBS has partnered with HistoryPin, a website that allows visitors to “pin” images to geographic locations, to create an abolitionism map. The Library Company has contributed a number of historic images of significant antislavery sites that highlight our strengths in African American and local Philadelphia history. Our HistoryPin channel features several images of the nation’s earliest African American churches, including the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, the African Zoar Methodist Episcopal Church, and the early 19th-century edifice of the Bethel AME Church where Richard Allen preached, all buildings which are no longer standing. Other images include 18th-century abolitionist Anthony Benezet’s home ( the sole dwelling on a rustic section of Chestnut Street) and the Sartain engraving of the Pennsylvania Hall fire which appears in the miniseries. The remaining segment of the three-part series will air on January 22.

PBS films historian Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, Jr., in the Library Company's Logan Room. LCP's African American History Specialist Krystal Appiah shares her knowledge of the collections while Director John Van Horne (far right) looks on.

The makers of another high-profile PBS documentary series, "African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross," stopped by the Library Company last month to view material in our collections. Program host and Harvard historian Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., and his crew were in Philadelphia to film a segment on Richard Allen. The production had been filming at Mother Bethel Church, where they learned about the related material in our collections. The production team’s impromptu visit was rewarded with a viewing of originals of engravings of Allen and the Bethel AME Church’s 1806 structure. "Many Rivers to Cross," a six-part series, will explore almost 400 years of African American history; producers are currently exploring using other materials from our African Americana collection.

No comments:

Post a Comment

LCP News Menu