In 1867, grandmother Cyntha Nickols sat down to write a letter to the government for help in finding her kin:
"I am a Colored woman, a former slave of a mister Sandy Spears of the parish of East Feliciana Louisiana… I am the grandmother of Porter—I am not by any means satisfied with the present arrangement made for my grandchild."
She seems to speak these words from the grave, each of them laced with longing, her tone aching with concern for her young grandson who was being kept in the clutches of the white man who had formerly owned her family. Nickols wrote these words in appeals to her local Freedmen's Bureau to gain custody of 11-year-old Porter. She needed her boy back, and said so in the measured manner that only a Black matriarch can. Explaining how another family member was able to assist her in rearing Porter, Nickols made the Black family's wishes plain: "We want him."
Though now long-dead, Nickols still tells her story—not through a spiritual medium, but by way of podcast.
"Seizing Freedom" is a testament to Black agency during the turbulent, post-Civil War years. The docudrama podcast, created and co-produced by Virginia Public Media (VPM) and Witness Docs, narrates first-hand accounts of African Americans who risked their lives to escape the physical and mental shackles of slavery and struggled mightily to build lives for themselves and their families after emancipation.
Voice actors saturate their stories with fresh emotion. Hearing the raw courage, fear, and hope of survivors transposed through modern voices helps listeners understand these people's real stories. Bowed but unbroken by chattel bondage, they meant to be free—by any means necessary.
"Unless you [study] history in college, you don't have access to much of this history—[the] history of Black people's agency during and immediately after the Civil War," says the show's host, historian, author, and associate professor of history at Wayne State University Dr. Kidada Williams. Instead, many Americans "got the narrative that white people handed Black people freedom, and now we have evidence that that was not true."
The series presents the personal narratives of formerly enslaved Black people, which the show's creators retrieved through months of archival and public records research. Each episode explores a theme, like "Reconstructing Family," which highlights personal accounts of Black men and women to shed light on misconstrued and misunderstood aspects of the end of the Civil War and the years after.
"Finding lost family members was often the first act of agency, of social and political freedom, that newly-emancipated African Americans undertook, but that history has been suppressed through the years." These stories of finding family are among the most powerful in the podcast's repertoire, because they reveal the ties that bind; those family connections that were critical then, and remain all-important to Black families, especially in the South.
Deeply understanding the hardness and hurt that often accompanies a Black girl's journey to womanhood, my mind reeled hearing the story of Mary Armstrong in the eighth episode of the series. At just 17 years old, Armstrong left behind a life of enslavement in Missouri on a personal quest to find her mother, braving boats, stagecoaches, and near-reenslavement before the pair reunited in Texas. When Armstrong, via the voice of actor Candice Holley, said of reuniting with her mama "Talk about crying and singing and crying some more, we sure did it," I knew my mama and I would have done the same.
The series' accounts of Black female empowerment and resistance are especially exciting considering the cruelty society imposed on dark women in the antebellum and Reconstruction eras. Hearing Fannie Berry describe how she fended off white men's sexual attacks—consequences be damned—made me chuckle and cheer.
"One tried to throw me, but he couldn't," Berry wrote, her words electrified by actor Richelle Claiborne. "We tussled and knocked over chairs and when I got a grip, I scratched his face all to pieces; and there was no more bothering Fannie from him!"
Berry's words are proof that Black American women have historically modeled resistance and resilience, even when it could have cost them their lives—as it often did, as Berry confirmed.
"But oh, honey, some slaves would be beaten up so bad when they resisted. And sometimes if you rebelled the overseer would kill you. Us Colored women had to go through plenty, I tell you."
Other episodes of "Seizing Freedom" detail how Black soldiers directly contributed to the Union Army's victory, and how thousands of Black people became wartime refugees in their own country, fleeing to Union camps and establishing tent settlements inside or near them. These people, the series explains, effectively freed themselves, even before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.
The use of emotion and lyrical language inform the way the show shares historical narratives, says lead producer and writer, Joshua Moore. A poet as well as the host-producer of the Versify podcast based in Nashville, Tennessee, "I don't want to play into the stereotype that poets are emotional people," Moore says, self-effacingly. "But I feel more emotionally permeable [when creating] this content, [reviewing] the unflinching account of people's lives and struggles. It's hard, sometimes, to sit for hours on end and read often brutal, painful histories."
Those feelings color Moore's crafting of scripts and the show's creative process, which he calls "highly collaborative." A team of heavyweight producers—including Ronald Young, Jr., who vets the series' voice actors—contribute to the project. Esteemed historian and professor Edward Ayers, who conceived the original idea for the podcast, acts as executive producer, while award-winning audio producer/editor Kelly Hardcastle Jones helms the crew as lead editor.
The podcast also features interviews with historians and subject-matter experts drilling down into topics like the sense of community that thrived in the refugee's settlements, and how African Americans preserved their ancestral traditions despite being separated from Africa by thousands of miles and hundreds of years. Listeners may also see the states where events in the series took place on the show's interactive location map, loaded with facts about the locations of the themes and narratives featured in each episode. The extra information amps up the credibility and accessibility of the series, slaking the thirst of all who wish to delve deeper into the lives, identities, and mentalities of the formerly enslaved.
"Seizing Freedom" is, rightfully, held in high public esteem, rated 4.7 out of 5 stars by Apple Podcast listeners. "A must listen! I am so grateful for this series. These stories have been omitted from too many history books, narratives, and lessons," writes one reviewer. On Instagram, one listener writes, "'[I]'ve been so fascinated with Reconstruction as of late and feel we have so much to learn from it. I'm so excited for this."
However, perhaps unsurprisingly, the series has not escaped the scornful scrutiny met by other works elevating historic examples of Black empowerment, such as the New York Times' "1619 Project." One listener writes that "Seizing Freedom" is "merely another postmodernist attempt to posit hot trash. No one is hiding history."
Nevertheless, the facts and first-hand accounts the show presents cannot be argued as anything less than powerful proof of Black Americans' historic legacy of self-liberation, bravery, and freedom-fighting despite great personal cost. The series contradicts persistent white supremacist narratives, still present in various facets of the nation's culture.
"Projects like ours, that center Black people in history and hold up the mirror of truth to this nation, expose the lie of white supremacy," Williams says.
The foundation and function of this series is—in the words of a Black cultural proverb—to tell the truth and shame the devil. "Seizing Freedom" richly illuminates that throughout the nation's history and especially during Reconstruction, African Americans acted as agents of their own freedom, uniters/redeemers/restorers of their own families, and authors of their own stories.
"Seizing Freedom" debuted in February and is available on digital platforms including Stitcher, Spotify, and Apple Podcasts.