SLAVERY AND THE MAKING OF AMERICA
Episode 4: "The Challenge of Freedom"
Lawrence Rowland: The moon was up, the tide was right for the escape of the Planter. It was a dramatic event.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In the early morning of May 13th, 1862 a slave named Robert Smalls led his wife, children and fellow enslaved sailors on a daring escape attempt from the Charleston harbor.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Just one year before, Confederates had captured Fort Sumter, gaining control of the harbor. North and South were now locked in a Civil War -- a war that would become the bloodiest in the nation's history. The conflict had erupted just a few miles from where Robert Smalls and his fellow crewmen were attempting their escape.
Andrew Billingsley: They had a little rowboat and once the families were loaded on to the boat the men took their posts. Smalls dressed like the captain and they set out from the harbor past first Fort Johnson
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: They had to give the appropriate signals and one single mistake would have alerted those who were watching that something was amiss and they would have held up the ship and possibly fired on it, blowing it out of the water.
Lawrence Rowland: Well, because Robert Smalls was a helmsman he knew those things. And he simply demonstrated what the passage code was.
Andrew Billingsley: And after a few seconds, which he said later seemed hours, he got the response pass on Planter. And so he sped on. And then they were approaching Fort Sumter and Smalls said a prayer. "Oh Lord, we entrust ourselves into thy hands. Like thou didst for the Israelites in Egypt, guide us to our promised land of freedom." And some of the men said to him, "let's don't go close to the fort, let's cut a wide berth around it so they won't see us." Smalls said we want them to see us. We don't want them to think we're sneaking around. So they went got close to Fort Sumter.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina in 1839, just down the coast from Charleston. His mother, Lydia was born enslaved on the McKee Plantation.
Lawrence Rowland: Robert Smalls mother Lydia was a household servant so she was probably more literate and better educated than most of the general slave population in the Sea Islands. She imparted, or at least tried to impart as much as that education to her son as she could.
Andrew Billingsley: He absorbed from his mother a sense of pride, self worth, dignity -- and he learned from his owner a set of skills. He taught him all sorts of things but he did not teach him to read and write. When Smalls becomes 12 years old instead of sending him out to the fields the owner, McKee, took the boy himself into Charleston and deposited him with his sister-in-law.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Charleston was a whole new world for the young boy. And now, like many of the other enslaved, he found himself hired out by his owner to work in the city.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: In the urban environment it was not unusual someone who owned several slaves to hire the slave's time out to other persons and that would represent a mechanism that would continue to allow the, the owner to reek the profits of the, the slaves labor.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: For the next few years Smalls worked at various jobs around Charleston and learned many new skills. Eventually he found work on the docks.
Andrew Billingsley: By the time he was 15 years old Smalls was captain of the crew on the docks. Most of these men were twice his age. And he earned 15 dollars a month, which belonged to the owner McKee. And whenever he got his 15 dollars McKee gave Smalls one dollar. Well Smalls saves his dollar and he purchased things like tobacco and candy and sold it to the other men on the docks and made more money and he saved it.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: But Smalls was ambitious. He asked McKee if he could hire himself out. Then he would pay McKee fifteen dollars a month, and keep any additional money he earned. McKee agreed.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: This happened frequently, actually, that owners often times allowed their slaves to work for other persons, accumulate wages as a result and to then purchase their freedom. This was a unique opportunity that was afforded especially by urban life. And it was very important for individuals such as Smalls because often times they were also given the opportunity to live away from the people who owned them.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Robert Smalls would soon ask if he could live on his own as well.
Andrew Billingsley: When Smalls turned 17 he fell in love with a young lady named Hannah Jones who was almost twice his age. 29 I believe she was. But they got married
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: McKee gave his permission for them to marry and he also gave the newlyweds permission to live in Charleston.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: But Smalls knew that the few freedoms he now enjoyed existed at the whim of his master. Robert Smalls wanted real freedom.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: With the help of his wife, Smalls studied maritime charts and was promoted. As he made more money, Robert and Hannah began to talk about buying their freedom.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Then everything changed.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The Civil War broke out on Robert Smalls' doorstep.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: For decades, North and South had been dividing between free and slave labor. In 1860, as the country expanded into the west, Southerners wanted the new western territories to be slave states. But most Northerners saw these new territories as places for free white men to work their own small farms. The battle over the future of slavery was destroying the Union.
Jim Horton: By the time of the presidential election of 1860 Southern democrats break off and they are pushing quite strongly towards the possibility of succession and the center of secession during this period is South Carolina.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: With the Democratic Party divided, a free-labor Republican from Illinois was elected president with less than 40 percent of the vote. Abraham Lincoln did not carry a single Southern state.
Jim Horton: Immediately after the election of Abraham Lincoln there are a series of meetings in South Carolina particularly. And before Christmas of 1860 South Carolina announces to the world that it is withdrawing from the United States of America -- it is seceding.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Less than a month after Lincoln took office Fort Sumter fell to the Confederates.
Jim Horton: Abraham Lincoln issues a call for federal troops to put down what he now is referring to as a rebellion. The civil war is underway and, you know, it's like this rock rolling downhill.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In late 1861, the Union regained control of some of the Sea Islands that stretched along the South Carolina coast.
Lawrence Rowland: Robert Smalls could have seen the Union fleet offshore. Throughout the war the Union fleet was visible from Charleston harbor so the sense of the impending possibility for freedom was in the mind of all of the slaves of the low country.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: When the war began, Robert Smalls' ship was called into confederate service and he was forced to continue working on board.
Andrew Billingsley: So for a year he was fighting with the Confederacy against the Union. They laid mines in the harbor, they carried ammunition from one place to another, they carried troops. They were fighting a war. Smalls figured that he was fighting the war on the wrong side. Smalls and his wife had been talking about freedom for a long time. And Smalls began to speak with some of the other black men who were working with him on the ship, they began to talk about how to escape.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: One night, the enslaved crewmen of the Planter dared meet at Smalls apartment to finalize their escape plans. They went over the scheme in detail.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: They decided that they would in the wee hours of the morning -- they would load the members of their families on the vessel and sail it out then into the harbor and beyond the confederate battle stations, taking a tremendous risk.
Andrew Billingsley: One man said, you know, I'm not afraid of any of this for myself but I'm afraid of what they will do to my wife and family back here if I participate. Smalls was very generous, he said "ok on the condition that you not tell anybody about our secret we'll let you go." So they let the man go. And then he said, "this is very dangerous and we may be captured by the confederates, and if they capture us they will put us to death." So he said to them, "I suggest that in case we are captured we set dynamite to the boiler on the ship and blow it up blowing up ourselves at the same time. Better [he said] to take our lives into our own hands than to turn ourselves over to the confederates." They all agreed.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: On the night of May 13th, 1862, as they often did, the confederate crew went home and left the black crew on board to guard the ship. This night, conditions were right. The Planter had just been loaded with ammunition, more than enough to blow it up if necessary.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: With their families huddled below, the Planter, with Robert Smalls impersonating the captain, approached Fort Sumter. He gave the signal and was allowed to pass.
Andrew Billingsley: And then the century on the Fort Sumter noticed that the boat had sped up and he thought that was funny. So he called to the boat to halt. But by now Smalls was out of the range of the confederate fire and so he didn't stop. But now he was in real trouble because he was headed toward the Union fleet. Although he was sailing toward them to deliver the ship to them they did not know he was coming. So what to do? Well apparently Hannah, his wife, had brought a white bed sheet along. So Smalls orders his men to take down the Confederate flag take down the state of South Carolina flag and put this white bed sheet up on the flagpole which they did.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: The union naval blockade didn't fire on the ship and, ah, did allow it come into it's midst. And was very surprised to see this confederate vessel now in the possession of enslaved African Americans who turned it over to them.
Andrew Billingsley: Smalls stepped up and said to the union ship captain, "I'm Robert Smalls. I brought you the Planter. I thought it might be of some use to uncle Abe." That's how the Planter became a union ship and Smalls became free.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Robert Smalls' capture of the Planter was a sensation. It was reported from New York to London.
Lawrence Rowland: Robert Smalls very quickly became a major celebrity. Lots of slaves escaped during the civil war. None of them escaped with as much enterprise or with as much confederate property in their possession as Robert Smalls and the crew of the Planter.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The union navy quickly learned that they were getting much more than just a new ship.
Andrew Billingsley: When Smalls was, um, taken into, um, union custody and debriefed they were overjoyed. They knew that the ship was valuable. As they debriefed Smalls they learned how much he knew about the confederate defenses and that was even more valuable than the ship.
W. Scott Poole: Robert Smalls really challenged the whole theoretical basis of slavery because here was someone who was intelligent enough, who was courageous enough, who was confident enough to engineer, really, this dramatic and extraordinary escape right out from under the noses of the superior race. So there's this feeling that you know there has to be some sort of, of retribution for that. And so the state of South Carolina actually places a, a 50,000 dollar bounty on his head.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The bounty did not frighten Smalls. He was prepared to fight and joined the union navy as a non-commissioned pilot.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: As the war entered its second year, most Southern white men had been called into the army. Many of the enslaved took this opportunity to flee.
W. Marvin Dulaney: It clearly revealed that without the patrol system in the South, which basically dissipated when the war started, there was nothing to restrain them and keep them from running away. And so, as a result, they ran away by the hundreds and then eventually by the thousands.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: As thousands of escaped slaves made it to union lines some field commanders put them to work in non-combat jobs. Unlike the navy, which had a few African-American sailors, the army would not permit blacks to fight.
Ira Berlin: From Lincoln's perceptive, or from the perspective of most Northerners, ah, this is a white man's war for union. This war has nothing to do -- nothing to do with slavery, and it has nothing to do, ah, with black people.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: From the time he took office Lincoln's policy was focused on keeping the four slave-owning Border States in the Union. Lincoln believed that without Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri the north was doomed. "I hope God is on our side," the president told a reporter, "but I must have Kentucky."
Jim Horton: In fact there's this very interesting conversation between Fredrick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in which Fredrick Douglas says that, ah, you know you're fighting this war with, with a strong right hand behind your back. Even though you're concerned about maintaining the loyalty of the Border States the United States would be better off to accept the service of thousands, tens of thousands of African-American troops.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: And by 1862 the relentless movement of fleeing slaves into union lines and their insistent demand to be allowed to fight made the issue unavoidable. In August the federal war department authorized mustering an army of five thousand black men in South Carolina.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Robert Smalls volunteered to help recruit the first South Carolina colored troops. Within the year black regiments were being created all across the union. The response was overwhelming.
Nell Irvin Painter: Wherever it's possible you have masses of men volunteering for the army. It's people all over the north coming to Massachusetts to volunteer for the Massachusetts 54th and 55th -- in South Carolina for the first colored infantry.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Now officially allowed to fight, they had to fight not only the confederate army, they had to fight within the union ranks as well. Racism was rampant. At first, black soldiers received only half pay. But still they came.
Ira Berlin: It's important to understand that from the beginning of the war black people have a commitment to their own freedom and determination to seize what they see as a critical opening, ah, which will change their lives and the change the lives of their descendants forever.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The influx of new soldiers was having an impact, but Lincoln wanted to choke the Southern resistance. Despite opposition within the Republican Party, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st, 1863. It sent shock waves through the South.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Although the Proclamation only freed slaves in the rebel state that were beyond the control of the union army, to African Americans it meant freedom was on the horizon.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: Those enslaved people who heard about the Proclamation -- often times they placed the broadest possible interpretation on it. And, and even if, and even if the literal words did not apply to them because of geographical limitations they applied the Proclamation to themselves.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: All over the South, African Americans took up the cause of freedom. Even soldiers who had already freed themselves by making it to the union lines gathered to hear the words read aloud.
Voice of Reverend French: ...shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The call for freedom had been sounded.
Music: [My Country Tis of Thee, Sweet Land of Liberty of Thee I sing.]
Jim Horton: By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation Abraham Lincoln was able to change the war from simply a war to keep the union together, a war to crush a rebellion -- into a holy war, a fight for freedom.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: For African Americans, it was the dawn of a new day.
Music: [Let Freedom Ring!]
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: But the war was far from over.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In the North, anger over the Proclamation caused enlistments by white men to fall off. The federal government responded with an unpopular draft.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: As the 1864 election neared, Lincoln feared defeat because of the Proclamation. But union victories in Virginia and the capture of Atlanta transformed the national mood. The President won with 55 percent of the vote.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Then on April 9, 1865, with his army down to less than 8,000 men, Confederate General Robert E Lee surrendered. The war was almost over.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Five days after the surrender, exactly four years to the day after the civil war had begun, a celebration was held at Fort Sumter to raise the American flag once again over the fort.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: And there was tremendous rejoicing on that day as throngs of people gathered and journeyed out to, to Fort Sumter.
Lawrence Rowland: By the time that celebration in Charleston harbor occurred Robert Smalls fought in 17 battles in which he risked his life for the union cause. So he was a military hero, ah, at the end of the war. And when this occurred he was one of the celebrities who was included in the ceremony.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: This celebration was terribly consequential because what it did was to confirm that the war was over with, and that this was a new day -- a new day in South Carolina and a new day throughout the length and breath of the South.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: All over the country African Americans rejoiced.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: But their joy would not last. That same night, Abraham Lincoln was shot in a Washington theatre. Within hours the great emancipator was dead.
Andrew Billingsley: Smalls said he cried like a baby and prayed "Lord have mercy on us all."
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The country wondered, "what now."
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Lincoln hadn't finalized his plans to reintegrate the Union, but with the South in shambles, the region needed reconstruction.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Every level of society had to be rebuilt.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Now free, African Americans were faced with many challenges, but their greatest challenge was freedom itself.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: African Americans, although greatly desirous of, of freedom were not really sure what exactly would be entailed by that concept.
Nell Irvin Painter: In a world built on slavery -- to say you are not enslaved anymore, what does it mean? Who's free? Does that mean you're gonna become white person? Ah, does that mean you're gonna be able to own property?
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: It's an abstract kind of a concept that really could only be determined by what people did.
Jim Horton: And if you read accounts of life in the South in the immediate aftermath of the war what you, what you will read over and over again is about large numbers of African Americans who are traveling the roads. It's very interesting because the former slaveholders say that these people are just wandering around aimlessly. They weren't wandering around aimlessly they were looking for friends and relatives that had been sold away.
Nell Irvin Painter: One of the most heartrending sites in, ah, and after the war publications is columns called "lost friends" in which people are looking for their families. People trying to get together.
Jim Horton: They were by their actions giving the lie to this notion that family didn't mean anything -- that these connections had been broken, that they didn't care anything about these people who had been sold away. And that's precisely what they did care about and what they're trying to do is to reconstitute families to find mothers and fathers and relatives and friends.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: All over the South, African Americans set out to become part of the new society. With the help of the Federal Freedman's Bureau, churches in the North and South, and individuals, worked together to open schools for the newly freed slaves. Freed people of all ages wanted one of the most basic rights denied them during slavery -- to learn to read and write.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Many others opened businesses or sought work for pay. For former slaves it was the first time they could negotiate work contracts and buy land.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: They knew that owning land was the key to inclusion in the new America.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Still others turned their attention to becoming part of the new political system.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: But, the new president was a Southern democrat named Andrew Johnson.
Jim Horton: In the first weeks after he takes office he sets about providing almost wholesale pardons for many of those who have been the major leaders of the confederacy.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The former Confederates had only one major requirement before being readmitted to the Union. They had to accept the Thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery and all would be forgiven. Republicans in Congress were outraged.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: They impeached President Johnson, who escaped removal by a single vote. Then Congress took over Reconstruction and immediately made changes to the Constitution.
Jim Horton: The 14th amendment to the Constitution said that your right of citizenship is not dependant on race. And the 15th amendment said that you could not deny a person the right to vote because of the person's race.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: By the time you get to the spring of 1867, African Americans have a new sense of government, a new sense of what, of what government means. After all, it was government that would in fact take steps to incorporate African American men into the body of politic.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: With the ability to vote and enter politics many African Americans, who had fled the South returned home.
Andrew Billingsley: At the end of the war Smalls came back to Beaufort where he purchased the house where he'd grown up as a slave, where his mother had worked as a slave. His mother was now presiding over the house as a freeperson. She'd been presiding over it for a long time for the McKees now she was doing it for her son. Then Smalls went fairly quickly into politics.
Lawrence Rowland: The Beaufort republican club became the base of Robert Smalls', ah, political career. And Robert Smalls went all over the county canvassing -- as they say, but campaigning. He proved himself to be a very clever orator. Um, great at repartee and ah dramatic in his oratory and often aggressive and colorful and all those things. The black population of the Sea Islands responded immediately to Robert Smalls. And so this was the beginning of his political career.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In the spring of 1868 Robert Smalls was elected to the South Carolina State House of Representatives where he joined the black majority in the legislature. It was the only state in the Union to be dominated politically by African Americans. South Carolina, where the Civil War had begun, would become a major proving ground for Reconstruction.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Across the country African Americans entered political life at every level of society.
Jim Horton: If you make this comparison between 1860 when 90 percent of black people were slaves and 1868, 1870 when you've got African Americans who are in State Legislature they are black mayors and police chiefs. There are blacks in the U.S. Senate in the U.S. House of Representatives -- they are literally revolutionizing American politics.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Although their overall numbers were small, their mere presence was too much for the old Southern establishment.
Lawrence Rowland: That was very radical. I mean white folks they just couldn't imagine that. I mean social equality, political equality oh my it was just, ah, beyond their comprehension -- that such a radical thing could occur so fast.
W. Scott Poole: And so when the social fabric begins to rip from the perspective of white Southerners. What they know to do is to respond with overwhelming violence. And they do. The Ku Klux Klan emerges throughout the South.
Jim Horton: They do unspeakable things. They do the things that you would think of terrorists doing. They blow things up, they kill people, they do all kinds of other things that you would normally associate with political terrorism.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: These were very dangerous times. These white terrorists -- really because that's, that's what they would properly be called -- were committed at stopping at nothing to eliminating the black body politic.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: No republican was immune -- black or white. And the thousands of federal troops stationed in the South were not enough to stop the violence.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In South Carolina, state representative Robert Brown Elliott, spearheaded hearings to investigate Klan activities.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Elliott's success in getting some of the Klan to confess to their tactics convinced him that he could do something about the intimidation. He once said, "we have suffered much and may suffer more. Let us not be driven from our position by any threats."
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In November 1870, Elliott was elected to the U.S. Congress. He took his crusade against the Klan with him.
Bobby Donaldson: Elliott wants to, um, convince the federal government that more work needs to be done to protect the rights of citizens. And he particularly wanted to catch the ear of president Ulysses Grant.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: But Grant's only major Reconstruction plan was an attempt to annex the Caribbean Island of Santo Domingo in the hopes that African Americans would want to relocate there.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Despite Grant's plan, Elliott, along with other Republican leaders continued lobbying the president. In April of 1871, their efforts paid off. Grant signed a Ku Klux Klan Act aimed at giving the federal courts the power to jail the Klan's leaders. In October, Grant declared martial law in nine South Carolina counties due to the "condition of lawlessness." It would be the only time the military power of the Act would be used.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: By 1874, when Robert Smalls was elected to Congress, the Klan Act had been effective, but now there was a new problem.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Groups called Rifle Clubs had taken their place. In South Carolina the Red Shirts Rifle Club became notorious.
W. Scott Poole: The Red Shirts essentially were the confederate army recidivist. They command structure of the Red Shirts' regiments preserve the command structure of actual confederate regiments. These were confederate veterans who were now under, in many cases, the very same officers that they had served under during the American civil war. And so the organization of the Red Shirts was really a way to bring resistance out into the open.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In 1876, just eight years after the first inter-racial elections, violence against Southern republicans was out of control. Smalls took to the floor of Congress to urge his fellow Congressmen to keep the pressure on the South.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: He told them about a letter he had received testifying to the level of violence. The letter began:
Voice of Robert Smalls: These were facts, which I vouch for entirely, and are not distorted in any degree. It's a plain unvarnished narration of painful and horrible truths.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: On July 4th, 1876 a local plantation owner drove his buggy down a public road in Hamburg, South Carolina where a black militia troop was drilling.
W. Scott Poole: The local plantation owner insisted on being allowed to drive right through this, ah, -- field. The black militia refused to move. They almost come to blows.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: After a few tense moments, the troop leader, Doc Adams, ordered his men to break ranks and allowed the carriage to pass.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: All along whites in that area had been waiting for kind of a provocation that they could use to rally their forces. And so local democratic leaders rally white democrats in that area and when the local black militia found out what was happening they, they held up in a, in a building. And the whites began to lay siege to that building. Ultimately the black militiamen were forced to surrender.
W. Scott Poole: When they surrender, particular members of Doc Adams' militia are picked out. They call them out one by one and they shoot them in the head. Then they tell the rest to flee -- as they begin to flee into the woods many of them are shot in the back.
Bobby Donaldson: That was a turning point because not only did it scare African Americans but it showed white democrats this is the moment, this is the trajectory you could take if you really wanted to turn the clock back on Reconstruction.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: In the South, the days leading up to the presidential election of 1876 became even more violent. In the North, republicans grew weary of the plight of the freedmen. When the governor of Mississippi asked for federal troops to halt widespread violence against black voters, Grant said there was no use saving Mississippi if it would cost the republicans Ohio.
W. Scott Poole: There was sort of this general feeling that 'let's just give the white ssouth what they want.' Which the white south said 'what we want is to be left alone to shape our own social institutions.' Which is a very polite, very Southern way of saying we want to be able to control our former slaves.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: At great personal risk African Americans held political meetings to get out the vote. But the Democrats smelled victory.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: On November 7th, 1876 everyone who dared went to the polls. The day after the election, there were accusations of vote tampering in three Southern states -- Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina.
W. Marvin Dulaney: In fact there's two returns coming from all three of these states. Ah, ah -- one set of returns say that the democrats have won the election. Another says, says that the republicans have won the election. And this of course leads to, an impasse and they decided to appoint a commission.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: As the commission argued whether the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes or the Democrat Samuel L. Tilden should become president, the March 4th inauguration deadline loomed.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Robert Smalls spoke about the continued violence against republicans in his state.
Voice of Robert Smalls: The Democratic Party pursued a policy calculated to drive from the state every white man who would refuse to join them in their attempts to deprive the Negro of the rights guaranteed him by the Constitution of the United States.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: The debate dragged on. The struggle for freedom was in jeopardy.
Ira Berlin: And hence the basis of a bargain. A bargain which will allow Rutherford B. Hayes to assume the presidency.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: On the evening of February 26, 1877, just six days before the inauguration deadline, a clandestine meeting between representatives of both candidates took place at the Wormley Hotel in Washington, D.C.
W. Marvin Dulaney: They sort of come up with an agreement where we're no longer concerned about the rights of African Americans as voters. And to put the Negro question on the back burner and not worry about it anymore. They literally turn African Americans over to, to the South.
Jim Horton: In other words to remove the final, ah, forces of the federal government providing protection in the South for black and white republicans. Well the deal is struck.
W. Marvin Dulaney: And so this is the infamous compromise of 1877.
Bernard E. Powers Jr.: The message that goes out to African Americans was that the destiny of African Americans was not at all connected to the destiny of the nation. This is a very different situation than the situation which developed during the Civil War because one of the things that, that we understand and understand very clearly is that when the Emancipation Proclamation was issued by President Lincoln, Lincoln was saying that the destiny of African Americans was linked directly to the destiny of the nation. We would rise or fall together. And now with the rise of Rutherford B. Hayes as republican President, now republicans were essentially saying that the country can get along very well without you.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: After the Compromise of 1877, African Americans found themselves increasingly forced out of politics.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Across the South black republicans were simply removed from their posts. Roberts Smalls, a U.S. Congressman who could not be removed, was charged with corruption, jailed and eventually pardoned.
Lawrence Rowland: They did to Robert Smalls what they did to a lot prominent black politicians at that time. Those charges haunted Robert Smalls for the rest of his life. But Robert Smalls was a very brave man. Not just stealing the planter but his whole -- fighting in 17 battles in the Civil War he wasn't afraid of gunfire he wasn't afraid of standing up to people who were armed when he was not. He had immense personal courage.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Robert Smalls never gave in. To the disdain of the democrats, he continued to run and be re-elected from his predominately black district for nine more years. His leadership would give hope to his people in the years of uncertainty to come.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Across the South, democratic leaders did all they could to erase Reconstruction from their minds and from the law.
Jim Horton: Gradually African American voters are intimidated to the point where they all but cease to be allowed to vote.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Mississippi passed a series of laws that allowed legal discrimination against African Americans in almost every phase of life. State after state in the South followed suit.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: As the old slave system was turned into a new system of servitude, many African Americans stayed to fight on the soil they had always called home. Others took their fate into their own hands and joined the movement west.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Black churches became more than ever the political cornerstone of their communities. Through them, African Americans kept faith in the American dream. Ministers preached, as they had during slavery, that liberation would come.
Jim Horton: The period of Reconstruction is a very instructive period in American society. It is America, in some ways, at its racial worst. But there are glimmers of America at its racial best.
W. Scott Poole: This moment when people with everything in the world including history against them had exercised both democracy and political power. Real political power.
Morgan Freeman, Narrator: Their attempt at the first inter-racial democracy was stalled, but the groundwork had been laid. Although it would be almost a hundred years until the second Reconstruction, their struggle would not be in vain.
Jim Horton: Out of Reconstruction come the basic tools that allow the modern civil rights movement to establish important victories in the 1960s. Without the 14th amendment, without the 15th amendment the civil rights movement would have had very little foundation upon which to build. So Reconstruction really does have an important impact on all of the generations that follow. It would be too simple to say that Reconstruction was a total failure -- it wasn't a total failure. There was a period of time when America provided a ray of hope.