Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass are among history’s most famous Marylanders. Both were born in bondage and both have statues in the state to commemorate their influence.
This month, two new documentaries about their lives are airing on Maryland Public Television: “Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom” and “Becoming Frederick Douglass.” Each documentary serves as a great starting point for those wanting to dig deeper into these formidable Black icons. And they’re also a call to look more honestly at the history of Maryland.
“People think about slavery in the Deep South but not usually in the upper south,” said Stanley Nelson, the Oscar-nominated documentarian and MacArthur Fellow who directed the two new films for PBS. Maryland had about 90,000 enslaved people and 74,000 free Black people in 1850, according to the Maryland State Archives; it was common for an enslaved person to walk down the street and see a free Black person living out the dream they desperately craved.
This kind of diversity caused tensions between the two groups. On top of that, Nelson noted, Maryland’s location in the “upper south” was walking distance from Pennsylvania, where many enslaved people could find their freedom. It’s important to set the record straight about the reality of slavery — an institution that “was never really meant to end,” Nelson noted.
Douglass and Tubman, born just a few years apart on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, offer powerful lenses through which to view this region. Tubman’s journey from Dorchester County, Maryland to New York was cyclical. As a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, she came back several times to free her family, eventually discovering that her husband, a freeman, had found another wife.
Douglass married a free woman, proof that the line between enslaved and free Black people was thin and malleable in the region. Douglass was one of the finest orators of all time, and his speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” still reverberates around the country every summer.
Douglass wrote three memoirs, the most famous being “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.” He became “the most photographed person of the 19th century. Not Black person; person,” noted Farah Jasmine Griffin, a professor of English and African American studies at Columbia University.
Given the wealth of knowledge about both figures, Nelson searched for fresh insights to present to views: “I always want to tell African American people something new, because then we’re going to surprise white folks, too,” Nelson said.
The Douglass and Tubman documentaries each have a running time of just an hour. Tubman’s focuses on the aftereffects of an assault that happened to her as a child. A white woman struck her in the back of the head and she started to have visions that doctors related to the resulting concussion.
The Douglass film follows his journey in Europe as he finds community there despite his status as an enslaved American. While he traveled, he was constantly asked why he didn’t simply buy his own freedom. The documentary takes time to unpack that question — why would one of the great orators, thinkers and writers of his time have to purchase his human rights?
Viewers may watch the films assuming that they have learned all there is to know about these two Marylanders, only to realize that there is still much to learn that has been buried and revised. The experts interviewed about Douglass and Tubman each stress how critical both revolutionaries remain to the experts’ current work. Tubman’s fight for bodily autonomy and freedom is still resonant today, and Douglass’ writing serves as the Platonic ideal of journalism that can change the world.
“I try, always, to get a diverse range of experts, that’s just how I’ve always done it,” Nelson said. As a veteran in his field, he understands the value of finding new voices in documentary filmmaking.
Nelson has been making documentaries for decades. Two of his recent works were screened at the Maryland Film Festival: Tell Them We Are Rising, on the beginning of historically Black colleges and universities, and The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution.
Nelson’s production company, Firelight Films, has been producing documentaries about injustice for years. Nelson mentioned his documentary last year on the 1971 inmate revolt and subsequent mass assault by authorities at a state prison in Attica, New York, Attica Uprising, and said, “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.” His goal of bringing new perspectives to historical events, he said, has kept him relevant in a changing documentary landscape.
“When I write a script or outline, I try to make sure I’m asking questions that take the expert to new places,” Nelson said. He founded Firelight Media, which “produces documentary films, supports filmmakers of color, and cultivates audiences for their work” according to their website. The flagship of the organization is a cohort of 10 BIPOC documentary filmmakers who are given an 18-month fellowship with mentoring to equip them for the rigors of the industry.
Nelson continues to think provocatively about the big issues of our time. One of his long-term projects is on the transatlantic slave trade and another is on the power of funk music.