Black History Month Programming | 2017
Learn how D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation unleashed a battle still waging today about race, representation and the influence of Hollywood.
Enjoy an all-star tribute to Smokey Robinson, the 2016 recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song.
Follow the journey of civil rights hero, congressman and human rights champion John Lewis.
Africa's Great Civilizations
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. takes a new look at the history of Africa, from the birth of humankind to the dawn of the 20th century.
African American musician Daryl Davis has a peculiar, controversial passion: meeting and befriending members of the Ku Klux Klan in an attempt forge racial conciliation.
In the wake of recent tragic and fatal events between men of color and law enforcement, learn how Black and Hispanic families counsel their kids to stay safe if stopped by police.
Journey through the prolific life of the 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings' author and activist who inspired generations with lyrical modern African-American thought.
The second season of this Civil War-era drama takes viewers beyond the battlefield and into the lives of Americans on the Civil War home front.
Airing On Select Local Stations
Check out more programs coming to PBS this month. See your local listings for air times. And if you miss them on TV (or they're not avilable in your area), come back to watch many programs online.
Did you know? More than 45 films are coming to WORLD Channel through your local PBS Station this February. Take a look.
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Ready to Watch? Below, check out several of the more than three dozen films streaming on pbs.org right now. They're available to watch anytime and anywhere. Want more. Visit our video gallery.
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History is often reduced to a handful of memorable moments and events. In Black history, those events often include courageous stories like those of The Underground Railroad and historic moments like the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But these are only a few of the significant and important events to know and remember.
In an effort to honor this expansive and growing history, Black History Month was established by way of a weekly celebration in February known as “Negro History Week” by historian Carter G. Woodson. But just as Black history is more than a month, so too are the numerous events and figures that are often overlooked during it. What follows is a list of some of those “lesser known” moments and facts in Black history.
Before there was Rosa Parks, there was Claudette Colvin.
Most people think of Rosa Parks as the first person to refuse to give up their seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. There were actually several women who came before her; one of whom was Claudette Colvin.
It was March 2, 1955, when the fifteen-year-old schoolgirl refused to move to the back of the bus, nine months before Rosa Parks’ stand that launched the Montgomery bus boycott. Claudette had been studying Black leaders like Harriet Tubman in her segregated school, those conversations had led to discussions around the current day Jim Crow laws they were all experiencing. When the bus driver ordered Claudette to get up, she refused, “It felt like Sojourner Truth was on one side pushing me down, and Harriet Tubman was on the other side of me pushing me down. I couldn't get up."
Claudette Colvin’s stand didn’t stop there. Arrested and thrown in jail, she was one of four women who challenged the segregation law in court. If Browder v. Gayle became the court case that successfully overturned bus segregation laws in both Montgomery and Alabama, why has Claudette’s story been largely forgotten? At the time, the NAACP and other Black organizations felt Rosa Parks made a better icon for the movement than a teenager. As an adult with the right look, Rosa Parks was also the secretary of the NAACP, and was both well-known and respected – people would associate her with the middle class and that would attract support for the cause. But the struggle to end segregation was often fought by young people, more than half of which were women.
Martin Luther King Jr. improvised the most iconic part of his “I Have a Dream Speech.”
On Wednesday, August 28, 1963, 250,000 Americans united at the Lincoln Memorial for the final speech of the March on Washington. As Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the podium, he eventually pushed his notes aside.
The night before the march, Dr. King began working on his speech with a small group of advisers in the lobby of the Willard Hotel. The original speech was more political and less historic, according to Clarence B. Jones, and it did not include any reference to dreams. After delivering the now famous line, “we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” Dr. King transformed his speech into a sermon.
Onstage near Dr. King, singer Mahalia Jackson reportedly kept saying, “Tell ‘em about the dream, Martin,” and while no one will know if he heard her, it could likely have been the inspiration he needed. Dr. King then continued, “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream….” And then the famous Baptist preacher preached on, adding repetition and outlining the specifics of his dream. And while this improvised speech given on that hot August day in 1963 was not considered a universal success immediately, it is now recognized as one of the greatest speeches in American history. For more information on the 1963 March on Washington, visit pbs.org/marchonwashington.
Image: National Archives and Records Administration
Inoculation was introduced to America by a slave.
Few details are known about the birth of Onesimus, but it is assumed he was born in Africa in the late seventeenth century before eventually landing in Boston. One of a thousand people of African descent living in the Massachusetts colony, Onesimus was a gift to the Puritan church minister Cotton Mather from his congregation in 1706.
Onesimus told Mather about the centuries old tradition of inoculation practiced in Africa. By extracting the material from an infected person and scratching it into the skin of an uninfected person, you could deliberately introduce smallpox to the healthy individual making them immune. Considered extremely dangerous at the time, Cotton Mather convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to experiment with the procedure when a smallpox epidemic hit Boston in 1721 and over 240 people were inoculated. Opposed politically, religiously and medically in the United States and abroad, public reaction to the experiment put Mather and Boylston’s lives in danger despite records indicating that only 2% of patients requesting inoculation died compared to the 15% of people not inoculated who contracted smallpox.
Onesimus’ traditional African practice was used to inoculate American soldiers during the Revolutionary War and introduced the concept of inoculation to the United States.
The earliest recorded protest against slavery was by the Quakers in 1688.
Quakers, also known as “The Society of Friends,” have a long history of abolition. But it was four Pennsylvania Friends from Germantown who wrote the initial protest in the 17th century. They saw the slave trade as a grave injustice against their fellow man and used the Golden Rule to argue against such inhumane treatment; regardless of skin color, “we should do unto others as we would have done onto ourselves.” In their protest they stated, "Pray, what thing in the world can be done worse towards us, then if men should robb or steal us away, & sell us for slaves to strange Countries, separating housband from their wife and children….”
Their protest against slavery and human trafficking was presented at a “Monthly Meeting at Dublin” in Philadelphia. The Dublin Monthly Meeting reviewed the protest but sent it to the Quarterly Meeting, feeling it to be too serious an issue for their own meeting to decide. The four Friends continued their efforts and presented at the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, but it wasn’t until 88 years later that the Society of Friends officially denounced slavery.
Over the centuries, this rare document has been considered lost twice. Most recently it was rediscovered in 2005 and is now at Haverford College Special Collections.
Photo: 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery
Of the 12.5 million Africans shipped to the New World during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, fewer than 388,000 arrived in the United States.
In the late 15th century, the advancement of seafaring technologies created a new Atlantic that would change the world forever. As ships began connecting West Africa with Europe and the Americas, new fortunes were sought and native populations were decimated. With the native labor force dwindling and demand for plantation and mining labor growing, the transatlantic slave trade began.
The Transatlantic Slave Trade was underway from 1500-1866, shipping more than 12 million African slaves across the world. Of those slaves, only 10.7 million survived the dreaded Middle Passage. Over 400 years, the majority of slaves (4.9 million) found their way to Brazil where they suffered incredibly high mortality rates due to terrible working conditions. Brazil was also the last country to ban slavery in 1888.
By the time the United States became involved in the slave trade, it had been underway for two hundred years. The majority of its 388,000 slaves arrived between 1700 and 1866, representing a much smaller percentage than most Americans realize.
Image:African Renaissance Monument, Senegal
The diverse history of Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
While Jewish and African American communities have a tumultuous shared history when it comes to the pursuit of civil rights, there is a chapter that is often overlooked. In the 1930s when Jewish academics from Germany and Austria were dismissed from their teaching positions, many came to the United States looking for jobs. Due to the Depression, xenophobia and rising anti-Semitism, many found it difficult to find work, but more than 50 found positions at HBCUs in the segregated South.
Originally established to educate freed slaves to read and write, the first of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities was Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, established in 1837. By the time Jewish professors arrived, the number of HBCUs had grown to 78. At a time when both Jews and African Americans were persecuted, Jewish professors in the Black colleges found the environment comfortable and accepting, often creating special programs to provide opportunities to engage Blacks and whites in meaningful conversation, often for the first time.
In the years that followed, the interests of Jewish and African American communities increasingly diverged, but this once-shared experience of discrimination and interracial cooperation remains a key part of the Civil Rights Movement.
Image: Melrose Cottage, built in 1805, Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.
One in four cowboys was Black, despite the stories told in popular books and movies.
In fact, it's believed that the real “Lone Ranger” was inspired by an African American man named Bass Reeves. Reeves had been born a slave but escaped West during the Civil War where he lived in what was then known as Indian Territory. He eventually became a Deputy U.S. Marshal, was a master of disguise, an expert marksman, had a Native American companion, and rode a silver horse. His story was not unique however.
In the 19th century, the Wild West drew enslaved Blacks with the hope of freedom and wages. When the Civil War ended, freedmen came West with the hope of a better life where the demand for skilled labor was high. These African Americans made up at least a quarter of the legendary cowboys who lived dangerous lives facing weather, rattlesnakes, and outlaws while they slept under the stars driving cattle herds to market.
While there was little formal segregation in frontier towns and a great deal of personal freedom, Black cowboys were often expected to do more of the work and the roughest jobs compared to their white counterparts. Loyalty did develop between the cowboys on a drive, but the Black cowboys were typically responsible for breaking the horses and being the first ones to cross flooded streams during cattle drives. In fact, it is believed that the term “cowboy” originated as a derogatory term used to describe Black “cowhands.”
Image: Bass Reeves, The first African-American US Deputy Marshal
Esther Jones was the real Betty Boop!
The iconic cartoon character Betty Boop was inspired by a Black jazz singer in Harlem. Introduced by cartoonist Max Fleischer in 1930, the caricature of the jazz age flapper was the first and most famous sex symbol in animation. Betty Boop is best known for her revealing dress, curvaceous figure, and signature vocals “Boop Oop A Doop!” While there has been controversy over the years, the inspiration has been traced back to Esther Jones who was known as “Baby Esther” and performed regularly in the Cotton Club during the 1920s.
Baby Esther’s trademark vocal style of using “boops” and other childlike scat sounds attracted the attention of actress Helen Kane during a performance in the late 1920s. After seeing Baby Esther, Helen Kane adopted her style and began using “boops” in her songs as well. Finding fame early on, Helen Kane often included this “baby style” into her music. When Betty Boop was introduced, Kane promptly sued Fleischer and Paramount Publix Corporation stating they were using her image and style. However video evidence came to light of Baby Esther performing in a nightclub and the courts ruled against Helen Kane stating she did not have exclusive rights to the “booping” style or image, and that the style, in fact, pre-dated her.
Baby Esther’s “baby style” did little to bring her mainstream fame and she died in relative obscurity but a piece of her lives on in the iconic character Betty Boop.
Image: Esther Jones ("Baby Esther"), late 1920s by James VanDerZee
The first licensed African American Female pilot was named Bessie Coleman.
Born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892, Bessie Coleman grew up in a world of harsh poverty, discrimination and segregation. She moved to Chicago at 23 to seek her fortune, but found little opportunity there as well. Wild tales of flying exploits from returning WWI soldiers first inspired her to explore aviation, but she faced a double stigma in that dream being both African American and a woman.
She set her sights on France in order to reach her dreams and began studying French. In 1920, Coleman crossed the ocean with all of her savings and the financial support of Robert Abbott, one of the first African American millionaires. Over the next seven months, she learned to fly and in June of 1921, the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale awarded her an international pilot's license. Wildly celebrated upon her return to the United States, reporters turned out in droves to greet her.
Coleman performed at numerous airshows over the next five years, performing heart thrilling stunts, encouraging other African Americans to pursue flying, and refusing to perform where Blacks were not admitted. When she tragically died in a plane accident in 1926, famous writer and equal rights advocate Ida B. Wells presided over her funeral. An editorial in the "Dallas Express" stated, "There is reason to believe that the general public did not completely sense the size of her contribution to the achievements of the race as such."
Image: Bessie Coleman and her plane in 1922, Monash University
Interracial marriage in the United Sates was banned in 1664 and not overturned until 1967.
During the seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the growing number of interracial marriages (also known as miscegenation) between Blacks and whites led to the passage of this new law. The first anti-miscegenation law enacted was in the colony of Maryland in 1664 and additional colonies quickly followed suit. These marriages were prohibited and penalties included the enslavement, exile or imprisonment of the white perpetrators. These laws grew and evolved over the years and attempts were even made to modify the Constitution to ban interracial marriage in all states.
It would take three hundred years for this law to be overturned. In 1967, Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a Black woman, were married in the District of Columbia. When they returned home to Virginia, they were arrested and convicted of violating the state’s anti-miscegenation law. They each faced a year in jail and their case went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found in favor of the Lovings in the famous trial Loving v. Virginia. They ruled that prohibiting interracial marriage on state and local levels was unconstitutional; this meant that marriages between the races were legal in the country for the first time since 1664.
In 2000, Alabama became the last state to officially legalize interracial marriage by removing the unenforceable ban that was still contained in their state constitution. Read more famous cases about interracial relationships that changed history.
Image © Bettmann/CORBIS
Documentaries can open windows to our past. Through the lens of talented filmmakers, we can re-live iconic moments in history like the 1963 March on Washington or climb aboard a Greyhound bus to join the Freedom Riders on their journey through the Jim Crow South. Documentaries offer rich insight into our society and culture, connect us to some of our proudest and most shameful moments in American history, and remind us of how far we’ve come. What follows is a list of powerful documentaries exploring Black history and culture in America.
The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross
This Emmy Award-winning series premiered in 2013 and looks at more than just Black history, it explores Black identity and what it means to be an African American in the U.S. today. Unveiling different religious and social perspectives, a multiplicity of cultural perspectives, and the evolution of the African American people, this series spans five hundred years and two continents as Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. takes viewers on a journey of the Black experience throughout the United States. On the way, he visits historic sites, engages in passionate debates with America’s top historians on African American history, and interviews eyewitnesses who have been on the frontlines of change.
Throughout the series, Dr. Gates highlights tragedies, triumphs and contradictions throughout Black history, revealing that the African American community has never been a uniform entity and sheds new light on what it means to be African American.
Learn more about The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.
Based on Raymond Arsenault's book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, this two-hour documentary tells the story of the summer of 1961 when more than 400 Black and white Americans risked their lives traveling together in the segregated South to protest segregation. Committed to the cause of justice and determined to attract attention to the pursuit of civil rights, they boarded buses and trains, calling themselves “Freedom Riders.” Deliberately violating Jim Crow laws, the Freedom Riders were met with bitter racism and mob violence along the way. Still, they continued to ride and find new ways to sustain and expand the movement.
Featuring testimony from the Freedom Riders themselves, government officials, and journalists who witnessed the Rides firsthand, this documentary gives viewers a front row seat to the Rides that changed history. "The lesson of the Freedom Rides is that great change can come from a few small steps taken by courageous people,” says filmmaker Stanley Nelson, “And that sometimes to do any great thing, it's important that we step out alone."
Learn more about Freedom Riders.
Slavery by Another Name
Did Slavery really end with the Civil War? The documentary Slavery by Another Name explores how in the years following the Emancipation Proclamation, systematic approaches were taken to re-enslave newly freed Blacks in the United States. This system included new brutal methods of forced labor in which men were arrested and forced to work without pay, bought and sold, and coerced to do the bidding of masters.
Spanning the 60 years following the Civil War, this 90-minute documentary includes interviews with key Black history scholars like Khalil Muhammad, Mary Ellen Curtin, Risa Goluboff and Adam Green, in addition to moving reactions from descendants of both victims and perpetrators of the forced labor system. Giving voice to the thousands of victims from this period, Slavery by Another Name will challenge assumptions that slavery ended 150 years ago.
Learn more about Slavery by Another Name.
Eyes on the Prize
For the preeminent documentary series on the Civil Rights Movement, look no further than Eyes on the Prize. When it premiered on television in 1987, The Los Angeles Times called it “an exhaustive documentary that shouldn’t be missed.” This award-winning series covers all of the major events of the Civil Rights Movement from 1954-1985, including the Montgomery bus boycott in 1954, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the birth of the Black Power Movement, and the courageous acts of the crusaders that contributed along the way.
Narrated by political and civil rights leader Julian Bond, the 14-hour series combines historical footage and contemporary interviews with key figures of the period; Reverend Ralph Abernathy, Coretta Scott King, Kwame Ture (also known as Stokely Carmichael), and George Wallace have died since its release. Not only does this series serve as a comprehensive resource in this extensive history, it acts to preserve their testimonials for future generations.
The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975
The Black Power Mixtape tells the story of the Black Power Movement through the eyes of Swedish journalists. Drawn to America in the late 1960s by stories of revolution and urban unrest, the journalists recorded interviews with activists like Stokely Carmichael, Bobby Steale, Angela Davis and Eldridge Cleaver. Thirty years later, this interview footage was found in the basement of Swedish Television and was brought to life by Director Göran Olsson and co-producer Danny Glover.
Set to music by Questlove and Om’Mas Keith, the filmmakers use the original interviews mixed with images and commentary from African-American artists and activists who were influenced by the struggle such as Erykah Badu, Harry Belafonte, Talib Kweli and Melvin Van Peebles. Together they tell the story of The Black Power Movement and how it not only changed the Civil Rights Movement, but how it changed America - forever.
Soundtrack for a Revolution
Taking a fresh approach to the story of the American Civil Rights Movement, Soundtrack for a Revolution features the powerful music from the movement. Focusing on the freedom songs sung by protesters on picket lines, in mass meetings, in paddy wagons and in jail cells, this film celebrates the vitality of the music and the infectious energy that it provided.
Freedom songs evolved from slave chants, the labor movement, and from the Black church, and were a vital tool as protestors stood up against adversity. They energized and empowered them, enabled them to sing the things they couldn’t say, and allowed them to meet aggression with dignity and non-violence. Written and directed by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman, this 2009 documentary brings songs of the movement back to life again through new performances by top artists, including John Legend, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean, and The Roots.
Dark Girls is an emotional exposé on what it means to be dark skinned in America. Filmmakers D. Channsin Berry and Bill Duke capture moving interviews with women who open up about their experiences being dark, Black women in America. They share painful stories about things their mothers, sisters and friends have said, in addition to what they’ve taken away from mass media. Overwhelmingly these interviews reveal the same thing: To them, Black is not beautiful.
In an effort to learn more about the concept of Black beauty, the filmmakers reach both in and outside the Black community to seed conversations that reveal deep-rooted biases about race. Combining these emotional interviews with historical context and well-known psychological studies, the film sheds light on the perceived biases of “dark versus light,” and its ultimate aim to help people see that Black is beautiful.
The Black List: Volume One
The Black List: Volume One features interviews from a variety of voices in contemporary Black America using a technique where the interviewer is never seen or heard on camera. The result is a living portrait of stories from leading voices across a variety of disciplines including arts, sports, politics, business and government. The vision of portrait photographer/filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders with acclaimed journalist and public radio host Elvis Mitchell, was to create a film in response to the negative connotations associated with the word “Black” in western culture.
The interviews created an HBO documentary, a museum exhibition of photographic portraits, a book of those portraits, and an interactive educational program.
Breaking The Huddle: The Integration of College Football
The HBO documentary Breaking the Huddle explores civil rights through the lens of football. Looking at the impact of the Civil Rights Movement and football programs at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the story culminates with the historic September 1970 game when the all-white University of Alabama Crimson Tide faced off against the fully integrated University of Southern California Trojans. Alabama’s crushing defeat under legendary head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant by USC’s star African American running back, Sam "Bam" Cunningham, is considered the game that changed college football in the South.
More than a Month
In this 2012 documentary, African American filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman sets off on a journey across America asking the question “Should Black History Month be ended?” Tilghman searches to learn more about race and power in contemporary America by interviewing experts at revered organizations around the country in addition to everyday people he meets along the way during his journey.
Using cinema verité, man-on-the-street interviews, and dramatizations to understand the implications of Black History Month, More Than a Month is both an amusing and thought-provoking look at what the treatment of history tells us about race and power in the United States. Through all this, Tilghman explores what it means to be an American and the universal endeavor to find one’s self.
BONUS | Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People
Inspired by the book Reflections in Black by Deborah Willis, Through a Lens Darkly explores the Black experience through photographs. Cameras have been used for over a hundred years as tools for social change, but in this documentary filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris explores how they have affected Blackness in America.
Using his only family album, historical images and photographs from Black luminaries like Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, and Anthony Barboza, Harris investigates the way Black photographers and their subjects have used the tool to both demean and empower African Americans. A powerful look at the history of race relations, representation, and popular culture, this documentary illustrates the powers of creativity through the lens of talented photographers.