Everyday African-Americans on the Extraordinary Road to Freedom


Former slave H. J. Williams described his life after emancipation: “Chopping cotton. Plowing the mule. You know, sharecropping…It wasn’t complete slavery, but it wasn’t much different at that time.”

The iconic images and sounds associated with America’s Civil Rights movement are well known. But what happened before the heroes and protests; court orders and sit-ins? We’ve come a long way, but how did we get here? As we observe Black History Month this February, we have an opportunity to reflect on how and why the quest for freedom was a movement made up not just of charismatic leaders, but also of everyday people who made extraordinary decisions to fight for change.

Stories From the Road to Freedom, which includes many first-person testimonies by people like Williams, is a new two-hour documentary premiering on HISTORY® on Saturday, February 16, at 10 p.m. EST. Narrated by Deon Cole, the film gives a fresh perspective on the roughly 100 years between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The special uses firsthand accounts, rare audio recordings, never-before-seen archival footage, and home movies to chronicle African-American life as lived by regular people, in their own words. These were the everyday people who carved out a life despite segregation, and then lit the spark that would become a massive mobilization for Civil Rights. This film preserves these stories and images for a new generation of young people who may just now be learning about the iconic leaders of the Civil Rights era.

Despite their efforts to maintain vibrant lives filled with dignity and freedom, African-Americans continued to be faced with discrimination and violence in American society. And they continued to press the issue of integration so that the United States would one day become the fully multi-racial society it is today.

The 13th through 15th Amendments paved the way for equality in official terms. But during the decades after the Civil War, many of these advances were peeled back by new segregation laws. Rather than recede into despair under the realities of Jim Crow, African-Americans developed new communities based on values of education, excellence and faith. After the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson spelled out the “separate but equal” doctrine, African-Americans created their own schools, towns, gathering places, and traditions.

For example, Langston City, Oklahoma, was just one of thousands of all-black towns that were founded after the Civil War. As one citizen, E. P. McCabe, said, “We have a good society, church privileges, school privileges and last but not least, the enjoyment of every right every other man enjoys under the Constitution.”

While the full promises of American freedom and equality were stalled, African-Americans forged thriving communities. Juneteeth celebrations, which marked the end of slavery in Texas, became commonplace for African-Americans, though no official “Emancipation Day” has made it onto the American calendar.

In many ways, life after emancipation for former slaves was too similar to life before emancipation. (Photo: NBC Universal Archives)

Despite their efforts to maintain vibrant lives filled with dignity and freedom, African-Americans continued to be faced with discrimination and violence in American society. And they continued to press the issue of integration so that the United States would one day become the fully multiracial society it is today.

Stories From the Road to Freedom brings the everyday bravery of extraordinary everyday African-Americans to the forefront. For example, a World War I veteran named Edward Nichols describes his experiences as a witness of extreme racial violence in Duluth, Minnesota; this kind of violence spurred African-Americans to call for anti-lynching legislation and an end to unequal justice. And the Lovings, an interracial couple in Virginia, discuss their heartbreaking but ultimately triumphant fight after Richard, a white man, had been sentenced to a year in prison simply for marrying Mildred, a black woman. Their case ended with a Supreme Court decision that banned race-based marriage laws in the U.S.

So often our tales of the Civil Rights Movement focus on the big picture—legislation, key leaders and historic turning points. But the stories of Pullman porters like Ernest Beane, who valued their jobs highly even as they were treated poorly by white passengers, and African-American World War II veterans, who struggled against discrimination at home after fighting fascism abroad, help show how and why individual acts eventually turn into movements.

After serving overseas, African-American troops came home to the front lines in the battle for civil rights. (Photo: Universal Media Inc.)

Though the film focuses on African-Americans, there were many people from diverse racial, ethnic, immigrant and sexual minority groups whose efforts were part of the broader movement for social equality in American society. As Lola Haines Hendricks, a participant in the Civil Rights struggles in Birmingham, Alabama, said, “It was time. The time has come. We just had a feeling it was beginning.”

By the 1950s, the Civil Rights Movement was in full bloom. Today, we all owe our legacy to people like the Lovings, Ernest Beane, and Lola Hendricks, who kept equality and freedom on the map in their own individual ways during some of America’s darkest days.

Who are the everyday heroes who have made change in your life? Leave you personal stories of freedom in COMMENTS.

HISTORY® is taking the initiative in preserving Civil War sites and stories that are an integral part of America’s road to freedom, and you can too.

Other Stories on TakePart:

• Loving Day: A Celebration of Interracial Couples

• September 12, 1992 : First African-American Woman in Space

• Dorothy Height, 'Godmother' of 1960s Civil Rights Movement, Dies at 98

Kimberly Gilmore, Ph.D., is Senior Historian and Director, Corporate Outreach, for HISTORY®. Visit History | @History