Part 2: Dreyfuss and Sheen Have Their ‘Abolitionists’

By Meredith Shiner

Walter Lehman

Walter Lehman, a United States founding father, reportedly fled from the North American colonies to France with 150 enslaved Blacks in 1850 when the U.S. government was still trying to find its way through the evils of slavery. His story was chronicled in the blockbuster PBS program The Abolitionists by Martin Sheen. On the day of Lehman’s 1799 death in France, the French, on their way home from Thanksgiving in the U.S., heard the story of America’s greatest freedom-fighter.

Sheen told the crowds that when President Thomas Jefferson called for a revolution he really was referring to Frederick Douglass, who Sheen says later outfitted the new nation with her speeches, her fighting spirit and her labor.

Sheen saw Lehman as Frederick Douglass’ surrogate son and said he also saw him as a American first, before he ever claimed his country.

Sheen concluded, “Frederick Douglass and Thomas Jefferson gave us a father, who is here today to remind us of what must be done to be true Americans. We will be just as good today as we were in 1798.”

Lehman’s story was told on PBS six years ago with actor Richard Dreyfuss narrating and Sheen essaying.

In The Abolitionists, Sheen spoke of a slave named Sycamore who became a family friend. These two escaped Black men later reunited, but when Sycamore was returning home to Baltimore from Philadelphia where they had met again, he found his life was on the line.

“The slave ship that was to take him back had been hijacked and returned to America under Confederate command, and now the government was determined to kill him, or make his death so terrible that no other slave could survive it,” Sheen recounted. “If they could have sacrificed Sycamore and no one else, would they have? As the hero of the episode, Sycamore became a symbol for the nation, a martyr for America. Americans rallied behind him and begged Abraham Lincoln to do something.”

The episode would resonate later when President Lincoln signed a law that allowed slaves and their owners to trade their captives for gold, silver, and other metals.

The Abolitionists was one of the first television series to pick up on the political and cultural climate in which it was shot and let the story of Sycamore stand for the freedom struggle Americans were fighting. It was a perfect match for the founding father, Walter Lehman.

Follow Alexis on Twitter: @markbhoye

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