Actress Sheryl Lee Ralph narrates Sisters In Freedom, a new film centering around extraordinary Black and white women who crossed racial lines to create America’s first organized female political force, and wage a battle to abolish slavery.
The film, written by Nathaniel Popkin, is being shown at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Parkway Central Library on February 27, 2019, and is a daring portrait of unsung heroism.
Sisters in Freedom opens with the 1797 escape of Ona Judge, a young enslaved woman, from the official residence of President George Washington. Judge’s defiance of the most powerful man in the nation centers the film in a historical moment that is defined by courage and direct action by free and enslaved Blacks who believed in the American promise of freedom and equality.
A few years before Judge’s escape, President Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which made escaping from slavery a crime. The Fugitive Slave Act casts a shadow over the film, threatening the safety and security of free African Americans in the North.
Taking viewers back in time to the 1830s, slavery in the South is increasing rapidly, fugitive slave laws are tightening and so are the rules that govern women in the public sphere. Lucretia Mott, Sarah Mapps Douglass, Harriet Forten Purvis and Angelina and Sarah Grimké lead an effort that inspires millions of Americans to petition Congress to end slavery, but their efforts provoke a vicious backlash. The women are mocked in emerging mass media, silenced in the halls of government and threatened by violence that foreshadows the civil war to come. As riots sweep U.S. cities, a mob attacks the abolitionists’ grand new meeting hall in Philadelphia, determined to burn it down. Despite the mounting challenges, the sisters of the abolitionist movement persist.
Using a palette of abstract reenactments, period silhouettes, scholar interviews and dynamic archival pictures, this groundbreaking documentary reveals how the resistance work of these pioneering women led directly to the historic meeting at Seneca Falls, the launch of American feminism and the women’s rights movement that is flourishing today.
According to the directors Wendy Cox and Andrew Ferrett, “We have created Sisters in Freedom in order to shed new light on an overlooked chapter of American history: the abolitionist movement, where courageous black and white women joined forces to forever change history. We feel this story is particularly relevant today, as American society and countries around the globe find themselves fractured along political, racial and gender lines.
“While this rich history resonates internationally, this is also very much a Philadelphia story. Only in a border city—so tied to Southern slavery, yet also committed to humanitarian Quaker ideals—could the forces of progress and reaction clash so dramatically. Over the years we, and our entire production team, have been interpreting Philadelphia for television audiences, and we feel this experience has given us unique insight.
“In our current volatile and divisive political climate, we hope viewers of Sisters in Freedom will feel inspired to reimagine the possibilities. It is our intention that this documentary not merely act as a corrective, but also as a vital and vibrant expansion of the American story. The women of our story challenged the United States to live up to its promise of equality. In response they were told at every turn that they were out of turn and out of bounds, when not directly confronted with violence. Yet they pressed on, until their cause of abolition became a cause the nation could not ignore.”
The takeaway is that the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society emerges and it is created by a multiracial group of women seeking to marry the causes of antislavery, racial justice, civil rights and female political power — which will directly lead to the feminist movement in America and forever change the course of American history.
Who Are The Sisters In Freedom?
Originally from Nantucket, Massachusetts, Lucretia Mott became a leader of the early feminist movement and staunch advocate of abolitionism during the mid-19th century. Harriet Forten Purvis was an early founder of the Underground Railroad in Philadelphia. Daughter of the wealthiest African-American in the U.S., James Forten, Purvis distinguished herself as a leader of the abolitionist movement and the early feminist movement. Sarah Mapps Douglass was a moral voice of the abolitionist and early feminist movement. Growing up a free African-American in Philadelphia in the 19th century, Douglass was no stranger to racism. Even as a Quaker, Douglass and her family were forced to sit on separate benches from those of their white peers. Angelina Grimké is one of only two known white Southern women in the nation to have been a part of the abolitionist movement. Sarah Grimké, Angelina’s older sister, was a prominent female abolitionist activist during the mid-19th century. As a daughter of a wealthy Southern slave owner, Sarah saw firsthand the brutalities of American slavery, and vehemently opposed it.