AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Abolitionists

Expand/Collapse AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: The Abolitionists


In the mid-19th century, the abolitionist movement in the United States sought the immediate emancipation of all enslaved people. These passionate antislavery activists—men and women, black and white, northerners and southerners, poor and wealthy—led the struggle that forever changed the nation. The videos in this collection feature historical reenactments and expert interviews that tell the story of some of the people and events that shaped this movement

  • Abolitionist Leader William Lloyd Garrison

    In this video adapted from American Experience: “The Abolitionists,” featuring historical reenactments,learn about William Lloyd Garrison, one of the most prominent leaders of the abolitionist movement. A trained journalist with a strong sense of morality, Garrison published The Liberator and was active in the American Anti-Slavery Society in the 1830s. Garrison initially preferred moral persuasion to confrontational politics, but the strong reaction to his views and the lack of progress in ending slavery eventually led him to more public acts of resistance.

    Grades: 6-13+
  • Ex-slave Frederick Douglass Joins the Abolitionists

    In this video adapted from AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: “The Abolitionists,” featuring historical reenactments, learn about the contributions of Frederick Douglass to the abolitionist movement. A former slave who escaped to freedom in 1838, Douglass’s eloquence made him one of the most prominent spokespersons for the movement to end slavery. His efforts to free George Latimer, an escaped slave who had been imprisoned in Massachusetts, led to the first of several personal liberty laws passed by legislatures in northern states.

    Grades: 6-13+
  • Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom's Cabin

    In this video adapted from American Experience: “The Abolitionists,” featuring historical reenactments, learn about the impact of novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe on the abolitionist movement. Stowe was an author whose commitment to the abolitionist cause was strengthened after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. She responded with the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an immediate best seller that was credited with “putting a human face on slavery” and ultimately helping launch the Civil War.

    Grades: 8-12
  • How the Mexican-American War Affected Slavery

    In this video adapted from American Experience: “The Abolitionists,” learn how the Mexican-American War of 1846–1848 affected efforts to abolish slavery. While driven by economic ambitions and a sense that the United States was “destined” to span the entire continent, the war also raised the issue of how acquisition of such a large territory would affect the balance between slave and free states. The congressional response—the Great Compromise of 1850—not only allowed for the possible creation of new slave states, but also placed legal demands upon northerners to aid in the recapture of fugitive slaves.

    Grades: 6-13+
  • Southern Abolitionist Angelina Grimké

    In this video adapted from the American Experience: “The Abolitionists,” featuring historical reenactments, learn about the daughter of South Carolina slaveholders who devoted her life to ending slavery and winning equal rights for women. Angelina Grimké and her sister Sarah drew upon their strong religious beliefs from an early age to oppose slavery in their native state and throughout the United States. After moving north, they became prominent writers and speakers in both the abolitionist movement and the struggle to obtain equal rights for women.

    Grades: 6-13+
  • Teaching and Learning About "The Abolitionists"

    In this video produced by WGBH, students complete a lesson on abolitionism that is structured around film clips from American Experience: "The Abolitionists." Consistent with Common Core standards, students analyze the film as text, reflect on the meaning of abolitionism, patriotism, and civil rights, and write down their thoughts. A student-led discussion prompts the free exchange of ideas and opinions that encourages wide participation among the students.

    Grades: 6-13+
  • The Abolitionists - Two Abolitionists Unite

    Abolitionist activists Angelina Grimke and Theodore Weld declared their love for one another and got married in 1838. Both a black and a white minister officiated and mixed-race guests intermingled freely. News of the event caused a stir in Philadelphia. Watch more in this excerpt from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - The Pottawatomie Massacre

    On the night of May 24th, 1856, John Brown and four of his sons dragged five pro-slavery men from their cabins, and hacked them to pieces with broadswords. "Brown is not simply evening the score in Kansas. He's really also trying to strike terror into the hearts of pro-slavery settlers." Learn more with this excerpt from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - The Massachusetts 54th

    With the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, the war merged with the abolitionist cause. The Proclamation had included an unexpected clause: at last, black men could enlist in the armed services of the United States. Learn more with this excerpt from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - The Dred Scott Decision

    In 1857, the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision had the potential to legalize slavery everywhere in the United States. Learn more with this excerpt from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - The Civil War Begins

    In April 1861, the American Civil War began, reuniting abolitionists who had grown apart in recent years. Learn more with this excerpt from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - The Burning of Pennsylvania Hall

    Inside Philadelphia's Pennsylvania Hall in 1838, a meeting of abolitionists -- among them Angelina Weld -- was disrupted when members of an anti-abolitionist mob threw rocks through the windows. The following night, the protestors set fire to the building, completely destroying Philadelphia's monument to free speech. Watch more in this excerpt from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - John Brown Gathers his Arsenal

    John Brown put little stock in the idea of abolition through peaceful means. In 1855, he gathered his arsenal and left his home for the slave state of Kansas where he would begin his bloody struggle. Learn more with this excerpt from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - Garrison Closes The Liberator

    After four decades and 1,803 issues, William Lloyd Garrison closed The Liberator after the 13th Amendment was added to the constitution. He could continue to fight for equal rights, dying in 1879 at age 73. Learn more with this excerpt from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - Frederick Douglass Reacts

    In 1833, Frederick Douglass was sent to a slave breaker to be beaten back into submission. After six months of beatings, Douglass fought back. "I was nothing before. I was a man now." Watch more in this excerpt from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - Frederick Douglass Begins to Understand Slavery

    At six years old, Frederick Douglass had just begun his life as a slave when he witnessed his aunt get beaten brutally by her master. "It was the bloodstained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery," he would later write. Watch more in this excerpt from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - Attack at Harper's Ferry

    In 1859 John Brown seized a federal armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, but failed to incite a revolution. Authorities found a link between Brown and Frederick Douglass. Learn more with this excerpt from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - Photo Gallery: Significant Abolitionists

    Abolitionists -- men and women, white and black -- fought body and soul in the great American crusade to end slavery. Explore some of these leaders and their vocations, with this gallery from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - Why We Made The Abolitionists

    The makers of "The Abolitionists" describe the legacy of abolition, and the diversity of ordinary men and women that played roles in abolishing slavery in the U.S. Watch more in this video from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Abolitionists - Map, Interactive: The Abolitionist Map of America

    Explore the story of the abolitionist movement in America through these interactive maps and tours from American Experience: "The Abolitionists."

    Grades: 9-12

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