Free Ebook — Milly Pierce: A Slave Turned Slave-Owner in Pre-Civil War Virginia

Posted on February 20, 2017 at 8:00 am

Copyright 2016 Miniver Press

A free ebook for Black History Month — Milly Pierce: A Slave Turned Slave-Owner in Pre-Civil War Virginia is free for five days.

Black, female and on her own, Milly Pierce embodies in many ways the long, complex and convoluted quest for equality that continues to characterize the odyssey of American women and minorities. This astonishing true story of an enslaved woman who won her freedom and found that the only way she could survive was to herself become a slaveholder echoes the themes of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Edward P. Jones, The Known World. Milly Pierce did not merely survive white oppression, she made a place for herself in the white power structure—and prospered as a “free woman of colour” rather than a freed slave. She did not accept her freedom meekly as a gift from her white master, she claimed that freedom as her own natural condition. As the Virginia legislature imposed new restrictions on free black citizens’ right to work, to education, to worship, to assemble and to trial by jury, Milly Pierce literally held her ground, the first black woman to own land in that part of the state, and thriving as an astute businesswoman. CeCe Bullard’s meticulously researched book tells her story for the first time.

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Smithsonian’s New African-American History Museum: Virtual Tour

Posted on September 6, 2016 at 3:57 pm

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the newest addition to the Smithsonian, is finally opening this month. Free tickets for the first few weeks are already gone, but everyone can take a virtual tour of exhibits like “Musical Crossroads” featuring artifacts like Chuck Berry’s Cadillac and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, and an immersive visual presentation. Musical performances on the surrounding screens include artists as varied as Michael Jackson, Aretha Franklin and Outkast. In the Sports Gallery, a life-size sculpture records the moment at the 1968 Olympics when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the air on the medal podium and tributes to legends like Michael Jordan and the Williams sisters. The museum’s theater is named for major donor Oprah Winfrey.

Copyright Smithsonian 2016
Copyright Smithsonian 2016

As visitors wait for the elevator, they will view a wall of thought-provoking and inspiring quotes. And the casket of slain teenager Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, will be on view, with a recording of his mother telling the story.

Museum director Lonnie Bunch wrote in Smithsonian Magazine:

I think the museum needs to be a place that finds the right tension between moments of pain and stories of resiliency and uplift. There will be moments where visitors could cry as they ponder the pains of the past, but they will also find much of the joy and hope that have been a cornerstone of the African-American experience. Ultimately, I trust that our visitors will draw sustenance, inspiration and a commitment from the lessons of history to make America better. At this time in our country, there is a great need for contextualization and the clarity that comes from understanding one’s history. I hope that the museum can play a small part in helping our nation grapple with its tortured racial past. And maybe even help us find a bit of reconciliation.

The museum pays tribute to the environment as well, seeking to become the first Gold LEED-certified building on the National Mall. Solar cells on the building’s roof produce electricity to heat water for the structure. Other sustainability-driven features include the green roof along Constitution Avenue and the water recycling and filtration system. The three-tiered trapezoid shape of the bronze corona that wraps around the outside of the glass building is inspired by a sculpture from the early 20th-century Yoruban artist Olowe of Ise of a woman wearing a three-tiered crown. Most of the building is underground, so that the structure does not overwhelm the nearby Washington Monument and other icons of the Mall.

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12 Years a Slave

Posted on October 17, 2013 at 6:15 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
Profanity: Constant use of racial epithets, sexual references
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking and drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Intense and disturbing violence including rape, murder, whipping, and abuse, disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 18, 2013
Date Released to DVD: March 3, 2014 ASIN: B00G4Q3NDA

12-years-a-slave-2Watching “12 Years a Slave” is a shattering experience. It shatters any remaining illusions of gracious, chivalrous, Southern plantation life in the pre-Civil War era.  They were based on the late 19th century myth-making from the children of slave-owners in a toxic effort to disguise the reality that the South was fighting to preserve a system of virulent racism fueled by the economics of plantation life. It shatters cherished notions of the first principles underlying the founding of this country.  The man who wrote the revolutionary words that “all men are created equal” was a part of this atrocity. It shatters all previous depictions of slavery.  By comparison they seem cartoonish and fraudulent, from “Gone With the Wind” to “Django Unchained,” more about the time they were made than the time they depicted. And, like all great films, it shatters our previous notions of what was possible on screen, with performances so vivid and compelling they seem to break through every boundary, between us and them, between then and now, between actor and audience. In one audacious moment, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man sold into slavery, looks into the distance, eyes filled with ineffable suffering and loss, and then turns to face us, looking into the eyes of those who are looking at him, bringing us further into his world.

This is different because it is a rare story of pre-Civil War South told from a black person’s point of view. It is based on Northrup’s book, written after he returned to his family.  It is the story of slavery from a man who experienced it, and who knew what it was like to live as a black man who was not just free but better educated and more successful than most people of any race in his community. In that sense, it is a story told from inside the system of our country’s greatest shame.  In another sense, it is presented by outsiders, director Steve McQueen (British) and stars Ejiofor (the British son of Nigerian immigrants) and Lupita Nyong’o (born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, educated in the US).  They tell us Northrup’s story — and ours — without being tied to the way we prefer to tell ourselves what our history is and means.

Northrup is a successful musician, happily married with two adored children and respected by both white and black members of his community in New York State.  He accepts a job playing with some circus performers (Scoot McNairy and “SNL’s” Taran Killem) in Washington, D.C., where slavery is legal.  They drug him and sell him to a slave dealer (Paul Giamatti).  Without his papers, he cannot prove he is a free man.  Soon he is renamed Pratt and transported to Louisiana, where he is sold first to a comparatively benevolent man (Benedict Cumberbatch), but then, when he gets into a fight with the overseer (an oily Paul Dano), he is re-sold to a brutal man who prides himself on being an n-word-breaker (Michael Fassbender).  Northrup loses more than his family, his liberty, his name, and his freedom.  He loses his very self; he is told early on that if the white people know he can read and write, it will create more trouble for him.  Indeed, when he tries to be helpful by suggesting a better system for transporting the crop, he earns the gratitude of his master but incurs the jealousy of the white boss.  The only way to survive is to pretend to be the sub-human the owners need them to be to continue to hold onto their bigotry.

This movie makes clear the poisonous, psychotic twisted mind that can accept or even justify the idea that one person can buy and sell another.  Over and over, we see the slaveholders at the same time acknowledging and denying the humanity of the people they think they own.  A female slave sobs because her children have been sold and she will never see them again.  The woman of the plantation, briefly sympathetic, says, “Poor woman.”  But then, immediately after, “Your children will soon be forgotten.”  Slaves are included in family worship services (though not seated with the family).  But their souls are never acknowledged; they are categorized as livestock.

There are terrible beatings.  There is torture and rape.  Slave children run and play, laughing, ignoring the man who is almost choking to death as punishment. There are property identification chains slaves must wear if they go off the property, like something between a hall pass and a dog tag.  There is a slave who has made her peace with what she has done to get better treatment — and with what she now does to other slaves.

Instead of the lush orchestral score usually underlying period films or the melancholy flute and drum usually heard in Civil War films, Hans Zimmer has created spare, edgy music that is bleak without being maudlin.  McQueen’s approach is sure and direct and the script by John Ridley is ably structured and thoughtful.  Nyong’o’s gives performance of exquisite grace and heart-wrenching dignity.  But the center of the story is Northrup.  Ejiofor is sure to get an Oscar nomination for a performance of unparalleled depth and eloquence.

Parents should know that this film includes very graphic and disturbing images of slavery, with rape, murder, and abuse, brutal whipping and atrocities, nudity, sexual references and situations, constant racial epithets, drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: What was the significance of the early scene in Mr. Parker’s store?  How does this story differ from other movie depictions of the pre-Civil War South?  Why did Northrup join in the singing of “Roll, Jordan, Roll?”

If you like this, try: book by Solomon Northrup, “Amistad,” American Experience: The Abolitionists, and Roots

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Based on a book Based on a true story Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Epic/Historical

The Abolitionists

Posted on January 21, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Lynching, abuse
Diversity Issues: A theme of the series
Date Released to DVD: January 21, 2013 ASIN: B00A3THVGE

The new release from the PBS series “The American Experience” is a three-part story called “The Abolitionists,” the story of the fight to end slavery in the United States.  They were called radicals, agitators, and troublemakers. They thought of themselves as liberators. Men and women, black and white, Northerners and Southerners, poor and wealthy, these passionate anti-slavery activists fought body and soul in the most important civil rights crusade in American history. What began as a pacifist movement fueled by persuasion and prayer became a fiery and furious struggle that forever changed the nation. Bringing to life the intertwined stories of Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Angelina Grimké, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and John Brown, “The Abolitionists” takes place during some of the most violent and contentious decades in American history. It reveals how the movement shaped history by exposing the fatal flaw of a republic founded on liberty for some and bondage for others. Despite opposition and abuse, beatings, imprisonment, even murder, abolitionists held fast to their cause, laying the civil rights groundwork for the future and raising weighty constitutional and moral questions that are still with us today.  “The Abolitionists” interweaves drama with traditional documentary storytelling, and stars Richard Brooks, Neal Huff, Jeanine Serralles, Kate Lyn Sheil, and T. Ryder Smith, vividly bringing to life the epic struggles of the men and women who ended slavery.

I spoke to one of the historians who worked on the series, Dr. Manisha Sinha, Professor of Afro-American Studies and History at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

How did you get involved with this program?

I’m in the process of finishing a big book on the history of abolition from the revolution to the civil war. I was tapped for this series to be consulted on the script and be a sort of talking head for it.

One thing that I think is very hard for contemporary people to understand is that even among those who wanted to end slavery, there were many different kinds of views on the reasons for abolition.

Right at the outset it is important to distinguish between people who are sort of anti-slavery, who did not like the system of slavery for a variety of reasons, but who choose not to do much about it, versus the abolitionists, who devoted their lives to fighting against slavery.  If you want to look at the roots of the movement, you could go back to the Revolutionary era.  There were some outstanding Quaker individuals and African-Americans who fought for abolition and founded some early abolition societies, which resulted in emancipation in the North.

The people who we call abolitionists, they are the ones who came on in the antebellum period, which was 20 or 30 years before the Civil War, when you had people like William Lloyd Garrison, whose publication of The Liberator in 1831 is seen as the starting point of the formal abolition movement in the United States. Garrison of course, owed his inspiration to many of these early Quaker abolitionists, one of whom he served under as an apprentice.

Most importantly, he was very influenced by the black tradition of protest against against slavery and racism. That’s really important to remember. Garrison rejects the idea of Jefferson and later on even Lincoln, which was anti-slavery but wanted to colonize black people outside the United States.  What’s unique about Garrisonian abolitionists is that they adopt the African-American program of anti-colonization and black citizenship. If you looked at the roots of Garrisonian abolition, it very much lies in a long tradition of black activism of rejecting colonization and citizenship in this country. To that he adds what is known as Immediatism, which is the immediate abolition of slavery.

That’s when the movement starts taking off in the 1830’s that’s inspired by British abolitionists, who first came up with the idea of Immediatism. It’s inspired by these early outstanding Quakers who fought against the African slave trade and slavery supplemented by this long standing black tradition of protest that had its roots during the Revolutionary era.

I’ve always been very interested in the Grimké sisters. They were pioneering feminists as well as promoters of the abolition of slavery. To me that speaks to a very modern view of equality.

It does. In fact, you could say the abolitionists were well ahead of their time, because they’re fighting not just against slavery, but also racism. They fight against racial discrimination in the North and then they fight for women’s rights. Now of course, that becomes one of the issues that fractured the abolition movement.  There were many varieties of abolitionists. You had the Garrisonians, who were fairly radical in their rejections of all kinds of hierarchy, gender and race. You had Evangelical abolitionists, who really didn’t want to mix the question of women’s right with abolition. They thought they had one unpopular cause. They didn’t want to advocate another. Many of these abolitionists were also clergymen.

There were evangelical clergymen, who opposed having women stand up and speak in public like the Grimké sisters, most famously.  Of course, before that, an African-American women, Maria Stewart, had done that.  And before her, Fanny Wright who was an abolitionist and a workingman’s and women’s rights advocate had spoken out in public to what ware known as “promiscuous” audiences that included both men and women. These are the issues that started dividing the abolitionists.

By the end of the 1830s, we have different varieties of abolitionism. Some of these abolitionists became political abolitionists. Unlike Garrison, they felt that they could work through the political system to abolish slavery. Garrison saw the system that was very dominated by slave holders and by the Northern allies and realized that the fight for abolition would be a long and difficult one. He sort of said that the way for abolitionists to go politically was to agitate in the streets rather than to become part of political system that was corrupt.

The series emphasizes the economic basis of the pro-slavery advocates.  It was less a matter of philosophy than it was of money.

Exactly. There were a whole bunch of revisionist historians of the Civil War, who said, “The Civil War was not really a war about slavery. It was about the industrial North against the agrarian South. It was really economic interests that were divergent.” That is true that, that slavery gave rise to a distinct society in the South. In fact, the economic interests of Southern slave holders were quite complementary and in fact linked with that of Northern economic elite.

The people who started attacking abolitionists first were what we call “gentleman of property and standing.” Prominent leaders and the Democratic party were that time leading heavily toward the south. Also, economically others, including the lawyers and politicians, these are the people who led mob violence against abolitionists because they saw abolitionists as threatening these unions, these alliances between Northern capitalists and Southern slave holders.

A lot of work needs to be done on this, but we know that slavery was sort of a national economic interest. Slave-grown cotton was the largest item of export from United States before the Civil War, and its values exceeded the value of all other items of exports from this country, so this was a huge national economic interest that involved Northern banking, insurance, shipping.

It also involved Northern manufacturers.  The textile mills at Lowell were dependent on slave-grown cotton from the South. Northern manufacturers of clothes, tools, shoes, found a market in the South.  Economically, the North and South had complementary economies, not economies that were in conflict. These are the odds the abolitionist faced.  Slavery was entrenched in the nation’s political institutions, it was an enormous part of the nation’s economy.  To fight against that made the abolitionists seem like radical fanatics who are advocated women’s equality which was unheard of. They were really taking on big causes and they were fighting against the enormous odds.

Was the abolitionist movement really the first big American political initiative coming from the people?  Did it inspire later movements like the civil rights, the women’s movement, the labor movement, anti-war protests, and other reforms? 

That’s a great question. Abolition was the first truly radical social movement in this country. It was one of the first to be successful. It became a model for radical activists in later ages. Civil rights activists many times called themselves The New Abolitionists and called for a second reconstruction of American democracy referring back to Reconstruction after the Civil War. Women’s Rights, Second Way Feminism clearly had most of their heroines in this 19th century movement for women’s rights.

It is true that there are a lot of divisions within abolition and within women’s rights during the Civil War over issues of black suffrage and female suffrage.  But the fact remains ideologically, the abolitionists remain a source of inspiration. Even Eugene Debs, the head of the American Socialist Party, often pointed to the abolitionists as his inspiration. There were some populists in the Midwest, who looked up to the abolitionists, too. The abolitionists became a kind of a touchstone, because they are one of the few radical movements in this country that was actually successful at the end.

My husband and I stood in line for two hours on New Year’s Day, the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, to get a rare glimpse of it at the National Archives.  We have to remember it did not free all the slaves, though it was a very  important step.

The Emancipation Proclamation was an official document, a legal document, a military document, born in the midst of war. Its scope was modest, mainly because Lincoln wanted to issue a proclamation that could not be challenged Constitutionally.  He invoked his war powers to free the slaves only in the states that were in rebellion, because that’s what he could Constitutionally do as President.

Everyone knew that if the Union won the war, slavery would be dead in Mississippi and in Louisiana and South Carolina. If slavery was dead in those regions, there was very little chance that it could survive in the border slave states that were still in the Union and were not included in the purview of the Emancipation Proclamation. They had far fewer slaves and Lincoln had been pushing them on compensated emancipation since the start of the war.

The idea that it was not momentous, I think is false. Yes, its purview was demarcated for specific reasons, but the Emancipation Proclamation was a turning point in the war. It clearly linked black freedom with the powers of the federal government and the fortunes of the Union army.  In many respects, it was actually quite a revolutionary doctrine. No less a person than Karl Marx said that it made the Civil War into a revolutionary war for freedom.


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Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:17 am

Plot: Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) is a slave in the Roman empire, about 70 years before the birth of Christ. A rebellious and proud man, he is sentenced to death for biting a guard but rescued by Biatius (Peter Ustinov), who buys him and takes him to his school for training and selling gladiators. Slave women are provided to the men as rewards. Varinia (Jean Simmons), a British slave, is given to Spartacus. He is awestruck by her grace and beauty, but when he sees that Biatius is watching them, he screams, “I am not an animal!” and will not touch her.

Crassus (Laurence Olivier), a Roman dignitary, visits Biatius’ home with two spoiled and decadent women, who insist on seeing a fight to the death. Spartacus is paired with Draba (Woody Strode), an Ethiopian, who fights with net and trident. Draba corners Spartacus but refuses to kill him, and intstead rushes toward Crassus, who slits his throat. Crassus buys Varinia, and when a guard taunts Spartacus about her, Spartacus kills him, and leads the other slaves in a revolt.

They escape to the countryside, and other slaves join them as they make progress toward the sea, where they hope to escape. Varinia and Antoninus (Tony Curtis), a slave singer and magician, escape from Crassus, and join the slaves. The Romans send troops to capture them, but the slaves defeat them, sending back the message that all they want is the freedom to return to their homes. Crassus uses the slave revolt to gain political power, by promising “order” if he is given complete control. When he is successful, triumphing over his political rival, Gracchus (Charles Laughton), he cuts off the slaves’ access to ships, and surrounds them with troops. Many are killed on both sides, and the slaves are recaptured. Crassus promises them their lives if they will just give him Spartacus. As Spartacus is about to step forward, each of the slaves cries out, “I am Spartacus!” The Romans crucify them all except for Spartacus and Antoninus, lining the Appian Way with 6000 crucifixes.

Crassus takes Varinia and her new baby back to his home. He wants her affection, as the ultimate triumph over Spartacus. Spartacus and Antoninus are ordered to fight to the death, with the survivor to be crucified. Each tries to kill the other, to save him from the slow death of crucifixion. Spartacus is successful, killing Antoninus out of love and mercy, and then he is crucified. Before he dies, he is able to see Varinia and his son, now both free, thanks to Gracchus.

Discussion: This epic saga of the price of freedom is thrilling to watch, the struggles of conscience as gripping as the brilliantly staged battle scenes. When we first see Spartacus, he strikes out at an oppressor almost reflexively. He does not care that the consequence is death; as he later says, for a slave death is only a release from pain.

His life is spared when he is purchased by Biatius. His training as a gladiator gives him his first chance to form bonds with fellow slaves. His exposure to the guards and to the degenerate women from Rome, who insist on watching muscular men kill each other, shows him that power is not based on worth. When he shouts, “I am not an animal!” he is saying it to himself as much as to Biatius. When he strikes out again, he is armed not only with the fighting skills he has learned, but also with an ability to lead, founded in a new sense of entitlement to freedom.

The characters in this movie are especially vivid and interesting. Varinia has a wonderful grace and a rare humor, which adds warmth to her character. She is able to shield her emotional self from the abuse she is forced to endure without deadening her feelings. Gracchus conveys the essential decency of a man who has made many compromises, political and spiritual.

Both the author of the book and the screenwriter were blacklisted during the McCarthy era, and families should discuss how that influenced their approach to the story. Kids may also be interested to know that this was among the most popular movies show in the former Soviet Union, and should consider what it was that appealed to the communists.

Questions for Kids:

· Why was it important for the Romans to spread the rumor that Spartacus was of noble birth?

· What did Biatius mean when he said he had found his dignity? How was he changed?

· What did it mean when Gracchus responded that “dignity shortens life even more quickly than disease?”

· Why did Crassus say he was more concerned about killing the legend than killing the man?

· Why did each of the slaves claim to be Spartacus?

Connections: The movie cuts back and forth between the speeches given by Crassus and Spartacus to inspire their followers. Compare the speeches to each other, and to the most famous such speech in literature, Henry V’s “we few, we happy few” speech, delivered by Olivier (who also played Crassus) in the 1945 version of “Henry V,” and delivered with a very different interpretation by Kenneth Branagh in the 1989 version. The sense of community and loyalty of the slaves is reminiscient of similar scenes in “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”

This was the first screen credit for scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo after he was jailed for refusing to cooperate with Senater Joseph McCarthy’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, though he wrote under other names during that period, and even won two Oscars for best screenplay under other names.

Peter Ustinov won an Oscar for his performance as the slave dealer who runs the gladiator school. He is a rare actor who is able to keep his character as interesting after becoming (at least comparatively) virtuous as he was before.

All of the performances are outstanding. Jean Simmons can also be seein in “Guys and Dolls” and “Great Expectations.” Charles Laughton can be seen in “Witness for the Prosecution,” and “Advise and Consent.” The movie also won Oscars for art direction, costume design, and cinematography.

In 1991, an expanded version of the film was released, restoring scenes that had been cut for the original release, including a bathing scene with Cassus and Antoninus with an implication of sexual interest. Because the original soundtrack was not available and Olivier was dead, his voice was dubbed by Anthony Hopkins.

Activities: Kids who like this movie might enjoy the novel by Howard Fast, also the author of a novel about the American revolution, April Morning.

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Classic Drama Epic/Historical Tragedy
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