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Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters - Synopsis  News for Social Justice Action
 May 22, 2005 22:47 PDT 
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* Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters - Synopsis

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Contact: Judy Richardson, Prod., x239

Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters - Synopsis

Slave Catchers, Slave Resisters is a two-hour History Channel documentary
that depicts the system of slave policing -- enforced by militia, armed
community slave patrols, paid slave catchers, and federal law. Produced by
Northern Light Productions of Boston, it will premiere on the History
Channel on Thursday, May 26th, 8:00 ? 10:00 pm.

The stories are set in both the South and the North, from the mid-1700's
colonial era through the end of the Civil War and its aftermath, and told
through archival material, scholar interviews and recreations.

While the stories show the brutality of the slave system, they also
reveal another, often-overlooked side of the history -- the strength and
ingenuity of the enslaved. As historian Peter Wood observes, "Would they
[the enslaved] go willingly into a situation of perpetual racial
servitude? No way!"

In the South, we portray slave hunters and their bloodhounds, who sometimes
lost against the intelligence and fight-to-the-death courage of the
enslaved. And in the North, we show slave catchers who were sometimes
blocked by an organized ? and armed -- black commmunity. Historian James
O. Horton comments: "Boston is not a safe place for slave catchers to
operate? BBlacks ? and sometimes whites ? formed as groups to protect

Even in the South, plantations were like pressure cookers, as our film
illustrates. Sometimes they exploded into full-scale rebellions -- like the
1739 Stono Rebellion in South Carolina or the 1831 rebellion led by Nat
Turner in Virginia. But, more often, they were plagued by the low-level
simmering of individual acts of resistance. One Philadelphia company even
refused to issue fire insurance policies in slave states because of the
high incidence of arson.

However, as we make clear, the main problem for slave owners was not
rebellion, but runaways. Historian Loren Schweninger notes, "A minimum
number of slaves per year that ran away was 50,000 and probably many
more... It was almost routine." Most ran simply to be reunited with
family members who'd been sold away.

During the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson noted that thousands of
slaves fled Virginia plantations alone, including some from Jefferson's own
plantation. Even the power granted the slaveholding states in the new
Constitution could not stop slave escapes. Historian Sylvia Frey states,
"The enslaved population had waged a desperate? but unsuccessful strugglee
for freedom, [but] the impetus that the Revolution provided persisted."

To stanch the flow of escaping slaves, plantation owners used a variety of
methods over time: an elaborate system of slave patrols with rigid rules,
Negro Acts and other legislation, "Negro dogs" especially bred to track
runaways (including some bred by a future U.S. president), and slave
catchers hired in the South and the North.

Our documentary tells true stories of slave catchers and escaping slaves
that have never before been portrayed on film. And threaded throughout
these unusual and little-known stories is information about the tools slave
hunters used to bring back runaway slaves, the strategies used by the
enslaved to thwart their pursuers? and the lengths to which both wouuld go
to achieve their goal.

We close on the aftermath of the Civil War, as the newly freed people work
to build their communities, with farms, schools and churches. But the
system of slave police has not disappeared ? it is soon reborn iin an even
more violent form: the Ku Klux Klan. As historian Sally Hadden, author of
the definitive book on slave patrols, explains, "The Klan is an extension
of slave patrols in most direct, obvious ways? they've changed the names
from patrols to Klann, they've put on sheets, but the activities and the
purpose remain pretty much the same."

Yet, while these stories acknowledge the brutality of slavery, they reveal
something much deeper: that within the darkness, there was also
light. For, even during the darkest days of slavery -- even when freedom
seemed no more than an illusive dream -- the enslaved and their supporters
continued to struggle against overwhelming odds?and sometimes won.

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