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Rutgers professors contribute to PBS documentaries about Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass

Recent PBS documentaries discuss the lives of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and their contributions to the Civil War and abolitionist movement. – Photo by Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway / Facebook

Two Rutgers historians contributed to two recent PBS documentaries about the lives of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who both played significant roles in the abolitionist movement, according to a press release.

Premiering on October 4, "Harriet Tubman: Visions of Freedom" details Tubman’s life as a leader of the Underground Railroad, a Civil War scout, a spy and a nurse, according to an article by Thirteen.

"Becoming Frederick Douglass" discusses how Douglass, who was born into slavery, eventually became an influential abolitionist in U.S. history by utilizing photography as a tool to advocate for justice and push for true equality for African Americans during the 19th century. The documentary premiered on October 11, according to the article.

Erica Armstrong Dunbar, a distinguished professor in the Department of History, and Marisa Fuentes, an associate professor in the Departments of History and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, provided stories and smaller details about Tubman and Douglass, according to the release.

Fuentes said that she was primarily involved in the making of the Tubman documentary.

Fuentes said that she was tasked with providing information about Tubman that was not common knowledge, especially because despite her efforts on the Underground Railroad and her contributions to the Union in the Civil War, Tubman died without any government care or recognition.

She was initially approached by the producer and filmmaker approximately a year ago as they were looking for historical experts on slavery as well as on gender and how it relates to slave history, she said.

Fuentes said that she is an expert in Caribbean history with a focus on women and slavery. One major contribution she made to her field was through her book "Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive," which discusses the experiences of enslaved women in the urban Caribbean and their close proximity to white society.

This resulted in a unique experience for those enslaved women due to the differences between their urban environment and plantations and their closeness to white slave owners, she said.

Fuentes said that she initially started studying Tubman because, like the other women she was studying, Tubman was not working on a plantation and actually performed in many different roles that were not tied to agriculture and farming. As such, her childhood experience was much different than what most people may have expected.

In general, Fuentes expressed interest in considering how gender affected slavery in complex ways.

“I will always be interested in thinking about gender and slavery,” she said. “I think that we need to because it offers a more complex understanding of the experience if we think about the gendered experience.” 

Fuentes said she was inspired to initially conduct her research by taking classes with Black, women feminist professors and thinking about Black women throughout history.

Fuentes said she was particularly motivated by Deborah Gray White, a distinguished professor in the Department of History and a professor in the Department of Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies. She said White considerably broadened the field of Black women’s history by being the first person to write a whole book on enslaved women in 1985.

The book, "Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South," was initially met with some negative feedback from publishers but eventually became a pivotal piece of literature in the field, she said.

Fuentes said that it is important that documentaries such as these exist, as they offer the broader public more accurate information on these individuals and their contributions to society and prevent these important figures from being forgotten.

“It reaches a broad audience, so it's educational in a very broad sense,” Fuentes said. “I think that that's crucial to getting these stories out and getting people to think more complexly about these amazing African Americans in our history.” 

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