GATES: I couldn't get rid of him, you know?
I go... CAMPBELL: He's back!
(laughter) GATES: Yeah!
FERNANDEZ: Right, right.
GATES: Are there still things that you could only say to another Black person that you could, would never dream of saying to one of your White colleagues?
OLAYIWOLA: For me, and this is why I believe in the sanctity of Blackness.
And I think that this idea of just being, you know, what does it mean?
What does freedom really mean?
You know, it's not necessarily having to think about that all the time.
And you know, I don't get that in the world.
Is that true for you?
HOLLAND: Oh yeah.
GATES: Oh yeah.
HOLLAND: Listen, there's a lot of things that uh, you know, that we say.
CAMPBELL: Cut the tape, cut the tape!
GATES: Oh no, you can't stop.
GATES: Throughout our history in the United States, Black people have fought mightily against slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racial discrimination; striving incessantly for genuine equality.
As noble and as heroic as this chapter in our history has been, that's only part of the story.
LEWIS: Black America has never been a monolith.
I mean, one of the challenges and the beauties is to try to talk about all of Black Americas, plural.
GATES: Black Americans have with great ingenuity and imagination, created a world on the other side of the color line, a world with its own values and rules, a world defined by unfettered racial self-expression, a world behind what W.E.B Dubois called, the veil.
COOPER: There's a sort of opacity to the veil.
You can see through it, but you can't see clearly.
There is so much richness to Black life and Black culture that happens out of the view of White people.
GATES: At the heart of our story are the networks Black Americans built for survival and for sheer pleasure and joy.
KELLEY: As Black people we've always had networks, always.
From the moment we were thrown on slave ships, to the moment we were placed on plantations.
And those networks, in some ways, extend all the way to the present.
GATES: Booker T. Washington nicknamed this, the "grapevine telegraph", and the grapevine is as old as the American Revolution.
HIGGINBOTHAM: When we talk about networks of Black people and associations of Black people, we're talking about different types of associations.
There's a social type.
But then, you also have fraternal, the sororities and fraternities and also intellectual organizations.
GATES: From the founding of their own places of worship and the Prince Hall Masons, to the flowering of BLM and Black Twitter, African Americans have forged networks in their own image as the ultimate act of resistance and survival.
FARMER: When everything around you is telling you that you're worthless, that you're ugly, that you're not human, you need spaces where you feel like you're outside of the White gaze.
FAVORS: We still see a strong stream of hostilities towards Black and Brown people within this country.
And we still need shelters, in a time of storm.
In some ways that storm is intensifying.
GATES: How was Black America born?
How did life behind the veil stitch itself into networks and into neighborhoods in which free people of color could live and aspire, worship and play, socialize and strategize about how to achieve full and equal citizenship for themselves and freedom for their sisters and brothers still in bondage?
I sat with some friends to ponder the origins of the African American community.
GATES: Did you grow up in a predominantly Black community?
HOLLAND: I did.
All Black, all Black community.
My last name is Holland.
One of the streets was Holland Drive the other was Sattler Road which is the other family that kind of occupied the area so.
I grew up in the country.
GATES: Nobody locked their doors.
It was a small Black community about 350 people out of 2,500 people.
But it was very nurturing, you know.
We all lived on the Black street, but it was like the whole world for us.
Freedom for a small percentage of Black people, began long before the Civil War.
Slowly, steadily, a free Black community emerged, composing about 10% of the entire African American population.
Many were clustered in northern cities like Philadelphia, Boston, and New York.
And in southern cities like Baltimore and Washington DC, Charleston, and New Orleans.
But freedom was a relative term.
LAROCHE: If there were an aerial view of all-Black enclaves in the 1830s, the country would look these little dots coming down from New Hampshire, Vermont, from Iowa east, all the way down into New York City.
JONES: Black Americans are going to build their own institutions: churches, benevolent associations, schools, printing presses, newspapers, even secret societies.
CONNOLLY: You have the creation of Black enclaves in places like Seneca Village, which is in present-day Central Park.
And there are African Americans moving to other parts of that city, of New York City.
SINHA: Many of the historically Black towns that were founded in the early 19th century were founded by African Americans as autonomous community spaces, uh, but also as a site for Black activism.
And Weeksville is a good example of that.
LAROCHE: Weeksville is started in 1838.
James Weeks, for whom the community is named, purchases some lots there.
He subdivides them and sells them.
SINHA: James Weeks, he was a longshoreman.
That's how he made his money.
James Weeks and Sylvanus Smith, they emerge as local leaders in Brooklyn.
Uh, and for them, property ownership and forming that autonomous community is where their activism is channeled.
LAROCHE: In New York at, at one point, you had to own $250 worth of real estate in order to vote.
And so, owning land is another form of freedom that's taking place, and we see this in these Black communities.
FIELDS: At its height in the 1850s, there are about 500 people now living in this community and all kinds of occupations represented.
From farmers to carpenters to journalists, religious leaders, schoolteachers.
It had an orphanage, a retirement home.
It had a baseball team, three churches, its own school.
It had a newspaper, the Freedman's Torchlight, which had news of the day and anti-slavery writings.
But it also functioned as an educational tool.
So, you had things in it like the alphabet, bible verses.
One that I loved, which is, uh, Maxims To Guide A Young Man's Life.
Be punctual, do what you say.
You know, things like that, that we take for granted, but they wrote it down, with the idea of community uplift.
SINHA: If you look at the history of Weeksville, you can see the emergence of Black activism and how it changed over various decades to form a place where African Americans could indeed enjoy the kinds of equality and rights that they had been denied for so long in the slave-holding republic.
GATES: Over time, early Black neighborhoods such as Weeksville would fade, awaiting rediscovery and the heroic preservation efforts that have made Weeksville a place of pilgrimage today.
so much of our people's history is buried in the remnants of fledgling communities such as this.
MASUR: In the 1820s, Cincinnati was a really fast-growing town.
It was a hub of transportation and industry where White and Black settlement was just beginning to grow.
For African Americans, it was a city of a great deal of opportunity.
LEWIS: They had businesses, they had enterprises that said that this was a thriving community.
And as a result, there was envy.
TAYLOR: In 1829, in Cincinnati, there was a race riot that forced half or more than half of the Black community to flee.
(overlapping shouts) (glass breaking) (flames crackling) SINHA: It was a real attempt to literally wipe out the free Black presence in Ohio.
TAYLOR: Ohio had never been a slave state, and it was considered part of the North.
And so, free Blacks heard about what had happened in Cincinnati, and they feared that it could possibly happen to them.
GLAUDE: There is an attempt on the part of Black leaders to address, uh, the safety, the security of Black communities, and to think about what self-determination, uh, might look like, in a place like the United States.
SINHA: The Black Convention Movement gets started in order to denounce what had happened in Cincinnati.
FOREMAN: Reverend Richard Allen, in the last year of his life, bringing together delegates from a quarter of the states in the Union, who met in Philadelphia at Mother Bethel Church for the first convention in 1830.
A lot of the delegates are nominated by their own internal social networks.
So, we're talking about churches, literary groups, leading entrepreneurs, reverends, editors of newspapers, the leading writers.
The lions of the 19th century from the Black community.
JONES: The Colored Convention Movement is this remarkable, um, network of state and local and even national conventions where Black Americans come from all over the country.
This is the crucible in which Black Americans come together to debate ideas, the promotion of Black thought.
GLAUDE: There is this debate that then happens.
What should we do in response to White violence?
Should we leave?
Should we emigrate to Canada?
Should we buy land?
How are we to think about our relationship to the community of Black folk who are enslaved in the South?
JONES: One of the big debates within the Colored Conventions is one over the degree to which Black Americans want to be Americans and should aspire to be Americans at all.
It would be a mistake to assume that everybody wants to be a US citizen, because there are those who do not.
SINHA: You had 2,000 African Americans leave Cincinnati and move to Canada.
You even have people contemplating emigration to Liberia, back to Africa.
But even immigrationists who argued that there was really no hope for Black equality within the United States continued the fight for their citizenship in this country.
JONES: So, it's not so straightforward, what it means to be an American.
And I take the debates over what we call ourselves, to be a reflection of a very astute ambivalence about what it might mean to be fully Americans in a nation that is capable of and guilty of a great deal that is pernicious for Black Americans.
MAN: The colored citizen is an American of African descent.
Cannot a name be found that will explain these two facts?...
It is Afric-American.
WOMAN: The term Afric-American is absurd!
We shall be called citizens of the United States and Americans.
MAN 2: How unprofitable it is for us to spend our golden moments in long and solemn debate upon the questions whether we shall be called Africans, Colored Americans or Africo Americans or Blacks.
The question should be, my friends, shall we arise and act like men, and cast off this terrible yoke?
CAMPBELL: And I remember growing up and going to school, and folks were saying, you know, what-what identity are you?
Are you Black?
Are you African American?
And I remember going home and asking my dad, like, what am I?
And he's like, you're American.
And I think he went back to, like, washing the dishes or something.
So, you know, this idea of, like, where do we fit in, where do we belong?
GATES: Which box do you check?
Are you Black, you know, even the census people are so intimidated.
They go, are you Black, African American, Negro, other?
GATES: You're Black?
GATES: Andre, what are you?
FERNANDEZ: I'm Black and I'm proud.
GATES: Well, I'm an African American.
I like African American, without a hyphen.
Because I work both sides of the Atlantic.
I write about Africa, and I write about, uh, Black America.
And I like that.
CAMPBELL: So, I do think there's some power in naming the American piece, hence, African American.
The rich history of Blacks in this country and what they did, right, to abolish slavery, to work on eradicating discrimination.
That Black history is often not taught, not celebrated, and I think to this day it's not.
LAROCHE: African Americans have always been the central and driving force in the cause of their own liberation.
But we see time and again, a lot of Black folks were written out of the central moment of their history and one of the most powerful moments is the Underground Railroad.
JONES: The Underground Railroad points us to free Black communities all along the borderline between slavery and freedom that, at great risk but with great skill, are secreting fugitive enslaved people across their borders to safety, to security, to free soil.
LAROCHE: The Underground Railroad operated inside of many other movements.
They're operating inside the AME Church, literary societies.
Many of the leaders of the Colored Convention Movement were also leaders in the Underground Railroad movement, their silent partner, so to speak.
They say slavery is wrong and what you're doing is wrong.
LAROCHE: Jermain Loguen is one of those.
He had escaped from slavery.
When he eventually gets to Syracuse, Loguen gets tired of trying to appease a system that is not to be appeased.
And he finally just throws off the last yokes of slavery and last shackles of the mind, and says, this is what I'm doing.
He uses the Black press.
He uses Frederick Douglass' paper to advertise himself as an Underground Railroad agent.
LOGUEN: I would like to say to the slaveholder's and all others, just here, that the Underground Railroad was never doing a better business than at present.
I speak officially, as the agent and keeper of an Underground Railroad depot.
Let them come.
We have some true hearts ready to receive them.
LAROCHE: They are willing to risk their liberty.
They are willing to put their freedom on the line for others.
It's truly a communal network.
You have secret or clandestine organizations operating together.
For example, we know that some people that are associated with the Underground Railroad are also associated with the Prince Hall Masons.
GATES: D'Andre, who was Prince Hall?
FERNANDEZ: Prince Hall was an abolitionist.
He was, uh, probably one of the first civil rights activists, advocating for the abolishment of the slave trade, 'cause he was born a slave.
Prince Hall was a self-taught man, taught his self how to read and write.
In 1775, Prince Hall, along with fourteen other Black men, petitioned to charter his own Masonic lodge.
They weren't accepted, which is why Prince Hall had to petition the Grand Lodge of England.
He was given permission, eventually, and that is now the present-day Prince Hall Masonry.
GATES: Now, people don't realize that many of the founding fathers were Masons.
That being a Mason was a big deal.
And its symbolism is inscribed on the back of the dollar bill, right?
GATES: And Washington's Monument, um, conforms to a, a symbol from the Masons.
FERNANDEZ: Could... (laughing) GATES: Do you happen to be a Mason?
Are you not answering these questions because it's against some rule?
FERNANDEZ: There's rules and customs we abide by.
GATES: Why is Masonry shrouded in secrecy?
FERNANDEZ: It isn't a secret organization but it's an organization, you know, with secrets.
SKOCPOL: Masonry is the most prestigious and best-known worldwide branch of fraternal orders.
They were brotherhoods, local groups where people from various walks of life would meet in lodges that were also connected to state and national headquarters.
They were prominent in Europe and came to the United States in the colonial period.
By the 1820s, the Prince Hall Masons broke off from their British founders and became a separate, US-based order of African Americans.
JONES: The Prince Hall Masons are a wonderful example of the ways in which Black Americans both borrow and then build their own autonomous organizations.
WALKER: The vast majority were everyday African American men who found themselves wanting to connect with other free African Americans.
It was the first national African American organization.
SKOCPOL: Ultimately, there were at least 62 and probably more African American fraternal orders founded in the United States from the time of the Revolution through, as late as, the 1920s and '30s.
Grand United Order of Odd Fellows.
Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks of the World.
But there were also dozens and dozens of orders that had no parallel among Whites like the Galilean Fishermen, or the Brothers and Sisters of Love and Charity.
They all met regularly and enacted rituals and elected new members.
They elected a lot of officers.
See, that's important, because think about African Americans.
They couldn't vote in most parts of the country.
But they could sure elect all these officers.
So, you could actually build up a political following.
CONNOLLY: It is about foregrounding the importance of Black manhood and creating an opportunity for men to protect and to build a broader Black community.
COOPER: There are all kinds of Black fraternal groups that Black men across the country participated in throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century.
Those groups also had then their own women's auxiliaries.
My great-grandmother was a member of Eastern Star, Order of Eastern Star Number 9.
I remember as a kid that when she was doing Eastern Star events she always wore a white dress and she wore white gloves.
It was a part of her history.
And I didn't realize until later that my great-grandfather was a Mason.
Black women turned to work in fraternal orders for, I would argue, a couple of reasons.
One, because the church had really limiting moral practices and a kind of policing, and the gender hierarchy is clear.
In fraternal orders, they could actually run the female auxiliaries.
GATES: As Black organizational life expanded through fraternal orders, auxiliaries, and the convention movement, many would leverage their networks to create spaces where Black people could learn how to read and write.
PERRY: It was understood by slaveholder's that for enslaved people to be educated would ruin them for slavery.
If it were discovered that an enslaved person was... Had been educated, um, it created this, this sensibility that education and literacy were essential parts of what it meant to be free.
JONES: Black education, the notion of Black Americans as not only literate but learned folks with the full capacity for citizenship is, in the American South, um, in many places is literally illegal.
ANDERSON: South Carolina was one of the first states in 1740 to pass a law banning literacy among African Americans, both slave and free.
And then other states would follow.
In some cases, there was segregated education, like the African Free Schools in New York or like Boston, where they provided segregated education for African Americans.
FAVORS: The African Free School in New York is carving out space to train young Black activists to use their voices like Henry Highland Garnet, Charles Reason, James McCune Smith, the first African American doctor.
ANDERSON: But in many cases, teachers were being attacked and schools were being burned.
FAVORS: White Americans are concerned about what Black folks are learning within these spaces.
But that does not stop the desire and the demand that Black folks have for educating themselves.
And so, yes, there will be, indeed, a clandestine effort moving forward for Black folks to-to find education by any means necessary.
Whether that's by reading by candlelight in the dark, whether that's by getting secret lessons from Black folks educating Black folks.
GASMAN: One example, in 1847, is John Berry Meachum, who created a floating school in the Mississippi River.
ANDERSON: The Mississippi River was owned by the federal government.
So whatever laws Mississippi was using to apply to African Americans and restrict literacy did not apply to the Mississippi River.
So African Americans could go get on the boat and be taught to be literate without violating Missouri laws.
DAVIS: The teachers were the most important figures in the community.
The teachers were the ones we could rely on to give us a sense of who we were that greatly contrasted with and resisted the norms of segregated society.
SINHA: Black women have been especially important for the struggle for equal Black school rights, for access to education.
And this happened even in the enslaved South.
You had Black women secretly teaching enslaved people.
There are some famous examples of this, uh, Susie King Taylor in Georgia and Mary Peake in Virginia.
FAVORS: Mary Peake is a Black woman who's born free in Virginia, and she becomes educated at a very early age.
And that's something which is inspiring, even to the people who are enslaved around her.
And, and they begin to come to her, in secret, asking to be educated.
And by 1861, even as slavery is still enshrined within America, she begins to educate young Black folks underneath this large oak tree in Hampton, Virginia, which becomes, where African Americans will be apprised of the fact that they have been freed.
PERRY: So immediately after emancipation, freed people rushed to, uh, be formally educated, of all ages and often were crowded into one-room schoolhouses, um, with a particular preference for being educated by other African Americans.
SINHA: So, Mary Peake starts teaching, openly now, what she had done clandestinely before.
PEAKE: Dear Brethren and Friends, I have been teaching fifty small children.
Some are beginning to read very well and are very anxious to learn.
Most respectfully, Mary S. Peake.
FAVORS In that same space, underneath that tree, just within a few short years of her first engaging and educating young Black people underneath that tree, Hampton University is going to be founded.
SINHA: This is an extraordinary story of the struggles of one Black woman teacher that eventually ends up becoming the kernel of founding one of those historically Black universities and colleges that are still around today.
FAVORS: When you engage in this process of literacy, you begin to plant seeds of idealism.
These institutions, these spaces provide a protective enclave, uh, where young Black people can serve as their own cultural agents.
And out of this we see a young, literate group of African Americans who have been inspired to transform and change America.
GATES: Did you go to, um, predominantly Black school, all-Black school or integrated school?
OLAYIWOLA: First grade through eighth grade was, um, predominantly Black.
I didn't, I don't think I had a White teacher until I, uh, went to high school.
I didn't really feel the need to seek out those specific spaces until I was outside the realm of Blackness and it felt necessary to be in Black spaces.
And then to also be young and Black and queer and the laureate for the city.
I haven't necessarily found my all-Black space.
But I do surround myself with Blackness.
GATES: To African Americans of the 19th century, achieving literacy wasn't a solitary act.
There were literary societies, theater companies, and other performative spaces devoted to organizing a collective experience of the word.
In 1821, the first African American theater company, the African Grove Theater launched in New York City.
It staged original works, as well as the works of Shakespeare.
Although the theater lasted only two years, the desire to engage audiences and produce works in Black spaces would endure.
McHENRY: In cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, the first literary societies came together, in essence, to practice not just reading but also intellectual thought.
FOREMAN: You have Black people writing about and talking about Haiti, West Africa, political movements in Europe.
Black people are as knowledgeable, as cosmopolitan, as wide-ranging, as curious as any other people.
McHENRY: They read Shakespeare alongside poetry from the 19th century.
They read each other's work.
That idea of speaking for ourselves, telling our own stories.
WILLIAMS: The beauty of those spaces is that you had everyone there.
You had the smartest people in the community.
You had the person who worked ironing clothes, domestic workers, men, and women.
McHENRY: In the early 19th century, not everyone who was a member of a literary society necessarily had the ability to read.
For those of you who can't read, someone else will read it for you.
They certainly could listen to the text that was being discussed and participate actively in the discussion that took place afterwards.
WILLIAMS: It was really an opportunity for men and women to think about what it meant to be fully human in the world in a time and in a place where consistently they were probably dehumanized outside of their own community spaces.
McHENRY: This idea that all Black writing revolves around slavery really underestimates the variety of writing that Black people did and, in some ways, artificially limits the Black literary tradition.
GATES: The Black poet Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wrote an essay in 1861.
And she said, we are writing too much about politics.
We need to write about feelings that are general.
Meaning, feelings that all human beings have, like love, you know, and loss, and fear of death and aspiration.
Instead of just writing about White men who are oppressing us.
GATES: And, you know, she was right.
We need to write about all kinds of things.
SINHA: In the 19th century, a popular thing to do was to create albums with poetry, artwork, with autographs, with sayings, that you would put together to recreate a community.
BARRETT: These albums would have been carried from home to home for social occasions.
What predominates in these albums is sentimental poems about friendship, beautiful images of flowers, and then also, romantic poems.
SINHA: Black women give us a glimpse into the beauty in their lives.
They had dignity in their lives, and they recreated that in these albums for themselves and their communities.
McHENRY: This wide archive of writing is really representative of, you know, the humanity of the Black race.
GATES: For a long time, I've looked at this phrase and wanted to ask Black people what they think it means to them.
And the phrase is, Black love.
All right, run it down.
What is Black love?
FERNANDEZ: I'll go last.
HOLLAND: You'll go last?
CAMPBELL: I vote present.
I'll kick it off.
I mean, I don't have, you know, a definitive definition.
But I can say, a love that allows for grace.
And I think, when I think about the love that I grew up around, you know, in my community, that was what it was.
I think about like, you know, sitting around on my great-grandmother's front porch, you know, around the fire barrel.
There, where there was a space for everybody to tell their stories, no matter what they had done or what they had been through, there was always a space for them, you know.
So, I think it's about creating spaces for, for, for one to be their whole self, all the time, in part.
GATES: That's beautiful.
HOLLAND: Anybody else got a, want to build on that?
CAMPBELL: Black love is radical love.
It's radical empathy.
And I just, that's what was going through my bones just now, as you were talking about, how we accept and receive, no matter what.
It is for me about love in its most purest form.
And not just of others but of myself.
You know, so I look in the mirror now and I give myself goose bumps.
I'm like, girl, you're fabulous.
OLAYIWOLA: I think I'm gonna start that practice of looking in the mirror and saying, wow, girl, okay.
I definitely think of Black love as political.
I think of it as revolutionary.
To be a Black person and to love a Black person in a world that wants to kill Black people, in a world that tells Black people that they are ugly, that they are invaluable, that they are unintelligent.
It's a testament to just living and surviving.
DAVIS: In a sense, personal relationships remain a metaphor for, um, freedom in a larger sense.
Inter-relationships, romantic inter-relationships, love relationships.
They held the possibility of larger experiences of freedom.
FOREMAN: They are a testament to Black love and to the importance of Black family.
Those were informal Black social networks as well.
GLAUDE: There's a moment that you might see in the eyes of someone who says they love you.
Just a glint, you know.
Or a moment where you hear in the yard, the laughter of innocence, of children, just running around.
And then suddenly, in that space, you got some elbow room, right, to do the work of imagination.
GATES: One of the biggest surprises of my education, and I teach African American literature, was to learn that the first anthology of Black literature published in this country was published in New Orleans in French.
It was called Les Cenelles, or the Holly Berries, in 1845.
You would think, knowing what we know about our history in this country, that they would be writing about, when is slavery gonna end?
But it's about love.
HOLLAND: Yeah, yeah.
OLAYIWOLA: It's one thing to think about Black survival, but to write past survival into the living, into the joy of just, you know, thinking about and publishing what it means, what it looks like to experience Black love during that time, I think, is, monumental.
HOLLAND: "Come, my beloved.
The breeze is scented when the day flees.
Everything is asleep.
All is silent on the shore of the immense lake.
Come, it is night.
The bird in the foliage has ceased its warbling, its happy song.
Not even a light murmur disturbs nature.
Let's keep watch.
Like an immense mirror which reflects the dome of the sky, look at this limpid water.
Nothing wrinkles this shimmering lake.
Look at the moon.
It is pale, but its reflections of opal charm the eyes.
And in the transparent night, innumerable stars shine in the skies.
Sit down, my darling, on this flowered grass, this fresh lawn.
From here, look at that cloud, which grazes the shore on the horizon.
How enraptured is my soul.
Oh, how I so love life at your side.
There, next to the still lake, let's live, far from the city, far from the towns.
Indeed, everything seems to smile when one can say, I am loved."
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ (explosions) (overlapping shouting) (explosions and gunfire) GATES: The Civil War would last four bloody and transformative years.
And at the heart of the war was whether it was right for one human being to enslave another human being.
Some 200,000 Black men would enlist in the Union Army and Navy, determined to ensure the answer to this question.
The Union's defeat of the Confederacy was a testimony to the powerful networks of Black abolitionists, soldiers, and contraband refugees who with their White northern allies and fellow Union soldiers, helped to strike the fatal blow to the slave power.
This alliance was a rehearsal for the experiment in inter-racial democracy that was reconstruction: America's new birth of freedom.
In just a few years, the constitution would be transformed by the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments.
Together they abolished slavery, secured Black American citizenship, and equal protection of the laws, and extended to Black men the right to vote.
The promised land seemed at hand.
Possibilities seemed endless.
Political networks, like the Colored Convention Movement, had been nurturing leaders for decades, preparing them for a moment like this.
WALKER: In the years following the Civil War, African American organizational and associational life flourished.
What had previously took part in small spaces in the North or in invisible spaces in the South now burst out into the public in a new and wide panoramic assembly of African Americans negotiating the future chances of African American life, and more importantly, reconstructing democracy in America.
CONNOLY: The project of Reconstruction bubbles out from these communal spaces and from these attempts at Black self-determination and then with varying success is able to achieve a great deal of power and influence.
LOMAX: The goal of the Radical Reconstruction was basically to create a bi-racial democracy.
Black and White citizens, equals in a region where Black people had been enslaved.
KELLEY: After the Civil War, Black women were incredibly mobile.
Many of them as single women moved to cities.
Atlanta was one of the centers that had significant numbers of Black women domestic workers.
HUNTER: In Atlanta in 1881, the city was in preparation for a major event, the International Cotton Exposition, which was kind of like a World's Fair.
Atlanta was not the town that we know it to be today, but it was definitely a town wanting to be seen as, you know, the capital of the New South.
But it's still a city that's kind of inchoate.
It doesn't have the infrastructure.
And so, they needed Black women's labor.
They needed domestic labor.
African American women who moved to cities were generally cooks, they were maids, they were child nurses, and then there were laundresses.
Laundresses were often women who had multiple responsibilities, who worked on their own, picked up the laundry from their clients, brought the laundry back to their neighborhoods, to their communities.
That separation, that autonomy was partly what gave these women a sense of power, that they could actually mobilize, that they could actually join together to make demands, to ask for higher wages.
So, there was a strike of washerwomen in Atlanta in 1881.
It was the largest strike in the history of the city at the time.
KELLEY: In many ways, Atlanta was the perfect space for Black women to organize.
It was urban.
You were able to maintain secrecy.
The washerwomen's strike began with a secret society, the Wash Women's Society, certain kinds of organizations that were rooted in slavery, because that's what they did on plantations.
They had to organize labor, organize work.
They had to organize escape.
And so, the level of organization, uh, was already, uh, there.
HUNTER: The strike began with 20 women knocking on doors, inviting other laundry workers to join the strike.
Some of the women were arrested for disorderly conduct while they were in the process of going door to door, recruiting people.
The city officials and the business community sort of looked down on these women and thought that the strike would be defeated very easily.
But the women turn out to be very astute political organizers.
They mobilize the entire community.
They got their husbands involved.
At the peak of the strike, they had several thousand women striking.
The women wrote to the mayor, stating their demands, explaining why they were on strike, what they wanted to achieve.
KELLEY: The washerwomen's strike of 1881 was successful insofar as it put employers on notice that Black women had the capacity to withhold their labor and to disrupt the situation.
They were able to win some increases.
And it also set an example for future organizing.
Not just for Black women but for labor as a whole.
HUNTER: So, there were waiters at a local hotel that decided that they would make demands for more wages.
There were cooks who started a union several years later.
It's a reminder of the contributions that ordinary people have made to American history.
GATES: By the end of the 19th century, the promise of an interracial democracy had evaporated and with the blessing of the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson, separate but equal was made constitutional.
Yet, Black club women and church women would not sit idly by.
They made their voices heard in the struggle for justice.
COOPER: A couple of things are happening in the 1890s in the country.
Black women have been thinking for the better part of the 19th Century about how to have their own voice respected and heard.
HIGGINBOTHAM: So, they tell the men, we have to build.
We've got to build next to you, but we also have to build for our own agenda.
JONES: Black women call that period "The Woman's Era", and it's an audacious kind of claim.
COOPER: There was a convergence of Black women's national organizations.
The Colored Women's League of Washington D.C. and the National Federation of Afro-American Women, which was based in Boston, and those two groups came together in 1896 in Washington DC and said, we need a formidable national organization to defend Black women's lives and interests.
PERRY: The National Association of Colored Women's Clubs is really sort of a gathering of Black women's civic and social organizations and it's an example of also of the tradition of networking.
GILL: They involve themselves in every aspect of racial uplift.
They were concerned about Black women's lives, so they helped Black women create daycare centers and kindergartens for children.
They were very active in the suffrage movement.
They also advocated for women who were being wrongfully accused of crimes.
HIGGINBOTHAM: This is when we have heightened lynching.
This is when we have segregation laws that are coming on the books, when we have disenfranchisement, when policing and convict leasing is on the rise, its women who say not only do you need us, but you need us as equals.
LEWIS: The National Association of Colored Women proved that they were a political and social agent that wasn't dependent upon the men, and that they could actually offer their own recipe for change and improvement.
JONES: Black women are prepared and present and ready to do the hard work of politics in the face of the rise of Jim Crow.
TAYLOR: The 19th Century really laid the foundation for Black political activism and not only taught generations of Black leaders how to combine and do collective activism, it taught them how to establish themselves as a political force in our society.
KELLEY: These networks were necessary to actually even envision what a free society might look like.
LEWIS: That's called institution building.
And so, when you begin to look at the fraternal orders and the Colored Conventions, one thing to pay attention to is the overall fight that African Americans would pursue, not over a decade or two but over a century.
GATES: As African Americans headed into the 20th century, the gains of reconstruction had been rolled back.
Drowned in a flood of disenfranchisement and racial terror, under siege, African Americans turned inward, seeking shelter behind the veil.
As the world outside grew dismal, the networks they forged would become sanctuaries where hope was kept alive.
Despite the strict policing of the boundaries between Black and White, Black Americans would give birth to a golden age of Black journalism, Black business, Black higher education, and Black culture, creating a renaissance in Black music, literature, and art precisely when the horizon seemed dark and ominous.
GLAUDE: We're losing ground... NARRATOR: Next time on "Making Black America".
GLAUDE: But at the same time there is this explosion in Black institutional life.
NARRATOR: The places... GILL: Black women really were at the forefront in entrepreneurship.
NARRATOR: And secret spaces... SMALTZ: Those queens were dressed to the nines!
NARRATOR: That built Black life.
GLAUDE: On the page, on the stage... We still make life swing.
NARRATOR: Next time on "Making Black America."
♪ ♪ NARRATOR: Dive deeper at pbs.org/makingblackamerica.
Join the conversation with #MakingBlackAmericaPBS.
Stream more from "Making Black America" on the PBS video app.
To order "Making Black America" on DVD, visit shopPBS.org or call 1-800-PLAY-PBS.
Also available with PBS Passport and on Amazon Prime Video.
♪ ♪ ♪ ♪