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Arts & Culture

‘Their Histories Are Histories of Solidarity’

UMD Experts Help New PBS Documentaries Present Fuller Picture of Tubman, Douglass

By Liam Farrell

Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman

Two new PBS documentaries premiering this month, “Becoming Frederick Douglass” and “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom,” include interviews from three UMD experts.

Douglass image courtesy of New York Historical Society/Bridgeman Images; Tubman image courtesy of Alamy

Three University of Maryland faculty helped illuminate the stories behind two 19th-century state icons for a new pair of documentaries premiering on PBS this month.

“Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom” debuts at 10 tonight, and “Becoming Frederick Douglass” follows at 10 p.m. Oct. 11. The films, directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Stanley Nelson, include interviews about Tubman with Cheryl LaRoche, associate research professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and the author of “Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance;” about Douglass with Christopher Bonner, associate history professor and author of “Remaking the Republic: Black Politics and the Creation of American Citizenship;” and about Douglass with Robert Levine, whose most recent book is “The Failed Promise: Reconstruction, Frederick Douglass, and the Impeachment of Andrew Johnson.”

“There are no two people more important to our country’s history than Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Their remarkable lives and contributions were a critical part of the 19th century, and their legacies help us understand who we are as a nation,” Nelson said. “We are honored to share their stories with a country that continues to grapple with the impact of slavery and debate notions of citizenship, democracy and freedom.”

La Roche said Tubman is a fascinating figure because of the leadership she was able to show despite being a diminutive figure barely 5 feet tall who didn’t know how to read or write.

“She doesn’t have the impressive credentials we really associate with (being a leader),” she said. “And yet she is leading men, women, children—sometimes whole families—out of slavery.”

Tubman developed a strong sense of herself from an upbringing on the Eastern Shore with an intact nuclear family, La Roche said, and her religious faith gave her the confidence and strength to help liberate slaves on the Underground Railroad.

“She did not allow herself to be defined by what the 19th century thought of Black women,” she said. “She transcended all of that.”

Bonner teaches a course on Douglass, who was born into and escaped from slavery in Talbot County, Md., before launching a career as an abolitionist, orator and writer; a statue of him now stands on the UMD campus. He said Douglass’ life can be a lens onto how America has wrestled with its stated ideals and how it failed to live up to them even after slavery was ended.

“We can see the work that had to be done to make freedom real … and the insufficiencies of freedom,” he said. “He points to a history of people seeking opportunities in the United States and confronting its limitations.”

While both Tubman and Douglass are known as historic icons, Bonner said he hopes the documentary also shows the bravery and contributions of the people who supported and worked alongside them. In order to achieve remarkable things, he said, “the extraordinary needs other extraordinary.”

“Individuals can change the world but that happens when people work together,” he said. “Their histories are histories of solidarity.”

The films are co-productions of Firelight Films and Maryland Public Television, with additional support from the state of Maryland, Bowie State University, DirecTV and Pfizer.

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