Noted Harvard University scholar, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. traces the history of Blacks in America, from the plantation to the White House, in his powerful six-part series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Airing on PBS on Tuesdays, beginning October 22-November 26, from 8-9 p.m., Dr. Gates explores the complicated and untold Black history, starting with the first Black to arrive in America, Juan Garrido, a free, African-Spanish conquistador who landed in Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth nearly a century before Jamestown was settled.

Each of the six episodes will cover a section of Black history with the first episode focusing on the first 300 years of Blacks in America and the "roots and routes" taken across continents to bring the earliest Africans here. The episode follows Dr. Gates as he travels from an abandoned slave-trading post in Sierra Leone to the Ball plantation in South Carolina, a route many thousands of Africans took on the Middle Passage. 

“African Americans are inheritors to a great legacy,” Dr. Gates said on a conference call with press. “[Blacks] make up 45 different ethnic groups and we’ve produced one of the world’s greatest cultures. We are members of the one of the world’s truly great civilizations.”

Unfortunately, too many Americans are unaware of this rich history.  In many schools across the nation, Dr. Gates found that students are not even learning about Dr. Martin Luther King or the Civil Rights Movement during Black History Month.

“If they’re not teaching the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. King, we know we’re in trouble in terms of Black history being taught,” Dr. Gates said.

“Part of the reason is political; the other part is pedagogical. There’s got to be one curriculum, one DVD, one book, and that’s how we’ve written The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. This is for the schools, for those who not only didn’t see Roots, but have never heard of Roots.”

Because there is only so much to pack in one-hour episodes, Dr. Gates' six-part series is supplemented by an incredibly dense and fascinating textbook of the same name. This book provides immense details on the complexities of Black life in America over the past 500 years. Dr. Gates plans to work “very closely with the [Congressional Black Caucus] to get mandates to teach African American history [in the public school curriculum].” 

Beyond this, Dr. Gates hopes that his series will provide the tools for religious institutions to better educate our children on African American history, as well. "I want to see Sunday schools and schools in mosques turned into academies for leadership and attainment where people would learn how to use computer skills as well as learn African American history. [I want children to learn that] the Blackest thing you could be is an educated man or an educated woman. …

"Black history is American history and American history is Black history. We can’t teach them apart." 

Watch The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross on PBS. Check your local listings.

-Brooke Obie