We watched the second installment of "The Abolitionists" last night on PBS. While I'm enjoying the programs and in general think they are doing a fairly good job of character portrayal, I come away from each segment thinking, "Yes, but. . . ."
Certainly Angelina Grimke, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe and, and Frederick Douglass are important figures in the movement, and yes, their actions had much to do with starting the Civil War. But so far, the programs have failed to reveal some of the flaws in the abolitionist movement.
As I was writing "The Road to Frogmore," which deals with a group of abolitionists who traveled to South Carolina in 1862 to work with the newly freed slaves, I was repeatedly struck by the abolitionists' "innocence" -- the degree to which they failed to recognize the problems they were facing. Commend them all you like about their stance that slavery had to be abolished. But did none of them ask, "Then what?" Did none of them look at the total number of slaves in the South and wonder how in the world they were going to assimilate them once they were free? And did no one ever realize that the slaves might have an attachment to the land where their families had lived and worked for generations?
I found instance after instance in which Union soldiers approached the slaves whose masters had abandoned them with similar questions: "Don't you know you're free now? Why are you still living in that old slave cabin? Go on! Move on! You're free now. You can go anywhere you like." And none seemed prepared for the answer to be, "We don't want to leave. This is home."
Many of the abolitionists were disturbed to find former slaves addressing them as "Missus" and Massa," and although they were often made uncomfortableby the need to take the place of the slave-owners in order to have any influence over the freedmen, it was also much too easy to "become" a slave-owner. When they offered army rations, or started classes to teach the children to read, or went from cabin to cabin to provide medical care, or handed out clothing, they were doing things that slaves had become accustomed to seeing their owners do.
When some enterprising northerners bought up plantation land and hired former slaves to do the work, they were all too aware that to the former slaves, they were little different than their former owners. Yes, there was some payment of wages, but the work was just as back-breaking as it had always been.
These issues crop up over and over again in "The Road to Frogmore." For many of the people portrayed in the book, the problems were too great. The realization that emancipation was not an end to the problem but only another beginning sent many abolitionists home to find another line of "good works."
Perhaps that's why I came to admire Laura Towne. She didn't have any more answers than the rest of her colleagues, but at least she was willing to see the problems through. She and Ellen Murray spend the rest of their lives -- some 40+ years -- trying to solve the issues caused by slavery. I'm going to be watching the next installment of the PBS series closely to see if they address these questions.