The first America-based PBS series in ten years, “Mercy Street” harkens back to Civil War-era Virginia, when the slave trade still drove Southern states’ cotton market but the profit and production of Northern factories drove the promise of emancipation.
Following its January premier, “Mercy Street” earned its audience. The show’s writers focus on the fascinating society of a Civil-War era border town, where the central question of the slave trade’s morality is multi-dimensional and complex.
Featuring ardent abolitionists refusing or delaying care for wounded Confederate soldiers, a wealthy Confederate family displaced by the Union takeover of their Main Street hotel to serve as the city’s war hospital, slave owners and sympathizers, and a plantation-raised Union doctor, “Mercy Street” portrays a curious crossroads in a transformative time. Critiqued for a lack of character development, the writers portray varying philosophies through a number of single-dimensional characters who collide in a great collection of dissent and disarray.
The American period drama has been a notably less explored genre at PBS, and “Mercy Street” is an exciting return to the home front. As the stage of a Union-controlled hospital, Mansion House and its occupants seems a far cry from the pristine and polite upper crust and their servants at “Downton Abbey,” where wartime comprised primarily a backdrop to encroaching modernity in twentieth-century England. Yet, in a smart business move, “Mercy Street” airs in the much-coveted time slot following PBS’ award-winning “Abbey.”
An apt re-telling of Civil War-era America is particularly prudent today, and revitalizes a crucial time of change in American history through television, a wide-reaching medium. PBS provides viewers many historical descriptions and directorial decisions through blogs and online posts.
Behind-the-Scenes Rags and Riches
Alexandria, where Mansion House once stood, is a fascinating placeholder for the series’ drama, where intersections of contrabands, Confederates, abolitionists, and free blacks worked to determine the constructs of a new society in the 1860s. “Mercy Street” highlights that history with the aid of wartime letters and a litany of texts and historians.
The city was home to big slave trade businesses, but blacks enjoyed freedoms in Alexandria that predate those available in most Virginia cities. As early as the eighteenth century, free black people lived in the city and included business and landowners by the time of the Civil War. The city was under Union occupation longer than any city and existed as a border town between the North and South.
A bustling metropolis just south of Washington DC, Alexandria was recently rated the fifth-safest city in the country, with an average annual pre-tax household income of $118,934. History has not bred similar success in the series’ actual filming locations of Petersburg and Richmond, Virginia.
“Mercy Street’s” sets were constructed in two Virginia cities well-equipped to house its reenactments of racial inequality. Petersburg’s historical struggle with racial strife produced several nationally recognized civil rights leaders. Hermanze Fauntleroy, the first African-American mayor in Virginia history, and pioneering members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee had their start in Petersburg.
Today, the city’s population remains primarily black, but no longer reflects peaceable protest. Petersburg has a reputation for violent crime; with murder, rape, robbery, and assault rates above the national average. “Mercy Street’s” second filming location, Richmond, also has rates of crime well above the national and state averages.
From Political to Social Wars
Mansion House is no vast stage for Mercy Street’s players, but by diverting the action from the battlefield, there is ample room for depicting the small, personal realities of this transformative time. Lingering caste systems amongst blacks (free, escaped, and indentured) and whites (Confederate versus Union sympathizers, women versus men at work) are dynamic and fluid as every character is poised to judge his fellow man.
Today, a decreasing education achievement gap between racial groups nationwide marks a new era in American education. Civil rights laws have been expanded and updated as recently as 2004, and policies supporting racial equality are common. Law has succeeded in widely equalizing opportunity, but peace has not yet been achieved. It appears PBS has taken note.
A survey conducted by PBS NewsHour and Marist College’s Institute for Public Opinion found race relations in America at a low point in terms of recent history, citing wide variances in views on current equality between black and white Americans. According to the poll, 76 percent of African Americans said they do not have the same opportunity in getting a job as whites, compared to 52 percent of whites finding job opportunities to be equal between the races.
Eighty-seven percent of African Americans said they had dissimilar opportunities to get equal treatment from the justice system, while 50 percent of whites said opportunities for equal justice were the same.
In his book, “Unfinished Business: Racial Equality in American History,” Michael J. Klarman points out that blacks exercised their right to vote in large numbers in the 1880s in Southern states (a right the government withheld from some Southern whites during Reconstruction), which resulted in opportunities to hold public office, sit on juries, and receive equal education funding.
Today, those rights are exercised in unprecedented numbers. In the 2012 presidential election, a higher percentage of African American voters than non-Hispanic whites reportedly went to the polls; but a climate of dissatisfaction persists. We have still not reached the peace of shedding a hard history.
Reparations failed to solve social problems in America following the Civil War. Opportunity and access to work and representation remain crucial to justice and provide a dignity that extensive federal handouts fail to supply.
American Amnesia and Mainstream Media
Slavery is not inherently American, as the transatlantic slave trade dates back centuries before the founding of America, but it certainly became inherent to many Southern landowners. “Mercy Street’s” well-designed drama serves as a reminder that emancipation was fought for by a primarily white populace working alongside the people they finally freed. It is a reminder how, when secession seemed certain, the government used slavery to ignite the passions of the northern half of the country to fight bloody battles against brothers to ensure their black countrymen no longer languished under the systematic oppression of slavery.
It took the South’s secession to bring the moral argument of slavery to a political head, but systematic segregation would prove a lingering block to equality.
“Mercy Street” will certainly not invoke nostalgia, but it will perhaps, more importantly, spark interest in America’s history and remind that social constructs bar us from equality far after federal law has not. The dignity and daily life of men and women in the 1860s is a fascinating reminder of what determines freedom. Now if only PBS would tackle Reconstruction.