From Outsiders to Leaders: Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass

September 30, 2022

New history documentaries on PBS shed new light on two iconic freedom fighters in the struggle to end slavery. Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were outsiders to the white ruling class of 19th-century America and spoke truth to power, rising to national and international prominence. They were both born enslaved on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and grew to lead America, pushing the nation towards fulfilling its written ideals of freedom, equality and opportunity.

Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom and Becoming Frederick Douglass will premiere on October 4 and 11, respectively, on THIRTEEN. They are co-directed by filmmakers Stanley Nelson (The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution) and Nicole London (American Masters – Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool).

Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom

Premieres Tuesday, October 4 at 10 p.m.

A woman sits in chair sideways with arm along backrest. She wears a complex fancy shirt.

Portrait of Harriet Tubman taken in Auburn, New York. Courtesy Library of Congress

To celebrate the bicentennial of Harriet Tubman, an icon of leadership in America, PBS presents Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom, featuring the inspiring and courageous conductor of the Underground Railroad. Born 200 years ago in Maryland, Harriet Tubman was not only a conductor of the Underground Railroad, but a Civil War scout, nurse and spy. One of the nation’s greatest freedom fighters, she personally led hundreds of people to freedom. Go beyond the legend in this new film to meet the inspiring woman who repeatedly risked her own life and freedom to liberate others from slavery.

Featuring more than 20 historians and experts and grounded in the most recent scholarship, the documentary film goes beyond the standard narrative to explore what motivated Tubman, including divine inspiration. Watch the full film now.

“With this film, our aim was to go beyond what is covered in history books to create a real, three-dimensional portrait of who Harriet Tubman actually was,” filmmaker Stanley Nelson said. “We wanted to examine what motivated her to pursue a revolutionary and often dangerous journey, particularly through her fierce religiosity and metaphysical connection to the divine. This film also has such a distinct sonic layer thanks to powerful narration by the great Alfre Woodard.”

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Becoming Frederick Douglass

Premieres Tuesday, October 11, 10 p.m.

A man with high collar, 19th century suit suit sites for portrait

Portrait of Frederick Douglass from frontispiece and title page of his book “My Bondage and My Freedom, ” published in 1856, 1856. From the New York Public Library. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images).


The new documentary Becoming Frederick Douglass explores how a man born into slavery became one of the most influential voices for democracy in American history.

Born in 1818 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass escaped from slavery in 1838 and went on to become the most well-known leader of the abolitionist movement. A gifted writer and powerful, charismatic orator, it is estimated that more Americans heard Douglass speak than any other 19th-century figure, Black or white. The documentary explores how Douglass controlled his own image and narrative, embracing photography as a tool for social justice, and the role he played in securing the right to freedom and complete equality for African Americans.

“Given that Frederick Douglass was one of the most prolific and powerful orators of his time, we were interested in exploring how he created and controlled his image, and ultimately how he used it to shift public opinion around abolition,” said filmmaker Stanley Nelson. “It was such a gift to have the inimitable Wendell Pierce provide the voice of Douglass to bring his words to life. Wendell’s dynamic performance, coupled with the many stunning photographs taken throughout Douglass’s lifetime, show how Douglass evolved to become one of the most influential and enduring social justice activists in American history.”