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‘American Experience’ Announces New Season Premiering January 11 on PBS

“American Experience,” the signature history series on PBS, returns on Monday, January 11 with a new season of documentaries about extraordinary 20th-century Americans — some famous, some unsung — who left their marks on American history and culture.

The season opens with The Codebreaker, a portrait of the pioneering cryptanalyst Elizebeth Smith Friedman, who took down gangsters and Nazis and laid the foundation for modern codebreaking. On Monday, February 15, Voice of Freedom profiles the great Black singer Marian Anderson and her history-making 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The Blinding of Isaac Woodard (Tuesday, March 30) explores how the blinding of a Black soldier by a Southern police chief in 1946 became a catalyst for the civil rights movement. American Oz (Monday, April 12) recounts the uniquely American odyssey of L. Frank Baum, whose The Wonderful Wizard of Oz would become one of the country’s most enduring tales. Billy Graham (Monday, May 17) examines the internationally-known evangelist’s life and enormous influence on American politics and culture. Finally, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa massacre, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents an encore broadcast of Goin’ Back to T-Town, the 1993 film that uniquely documents the history of Greenwood, the Black neighborhood at the center of the massacre, through the remembrances of residents who rebuilt Greenwood into a prosperous and thriving community.

What follows is the line-up for the upcoming season of “American Experience”:

The Codebreaker (Monday, January 11, 2021, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET)
Producd by Chana Gazit, The Codebreaker is based on the book The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies. The film reveals the fascinating story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, the groundbreaking cryptanalyst whose painstaking work to decode thousands of messages for the U.S. government would send infamous gangsters to prison in the 1920s and bring down a massive, near-invisible Nazi spy ring in WWII. A suburban wife and mother, she led a secret double life that would only come to light decades after her death, when classified government files were unsealed. But together with her husband, the legendary cryptologist William Friedman, Elizebeth helped develop the methods that led to the creation of the powerful new science of cryptology and laid the foundation for modern codebreaking today.

Goin’ Back to T-Town 
(Encore Broadcast Monday, February 8, 2021, 9:00-10:00 p.m. ET)
Produced by Sam Pollard and Joyce Vaughn, Goin’ Back to T-Town tells the story of Greenwood, an extraordinary Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, that prospered during the 1920s and 30s despite rampant and hostile segregation. Torn apart in 1921 by one of the worst racially-motivated massacres in the nation’s history, the neighborhood rose from the ashes, and by 1936 boasted the largest concentration of Black-owned businesses in the U.S., known as “Black Wall Street.” Ironically, it could not survive the progressive policies of integration and urban renewal of the 1960s. Told through the memories of those who lived through the events, the film is a bittersweet celebration of small-town life and the resilience of a community’s spirit.

Voice of Freedom (Monday, February 15, 2021, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET)
On Easter Sunday, 1939, contralto Marian Anderson stepped up to a microphone in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Inscribed on the walls of the monument behind her were the words “all men are created equal.” Barred from performing in Constitution Hall because of her race, Anderson would sing for the American people in the open air. Hailed as a voice that “comes around once in a hundred years” by maestros in Europe and widely celebrated by both white and Black audiences at home, her fame hadn’t been enough to spare her from the indignities and outright violence of racism and segregation. Produced by Rob Rapley, Voice of Freedom interweaves Anderson’s rich life story with this landmark moment in history, exploring fundamental questions about talent, race, fame, democracy, and the American soul.

The Blinding of Isaac Woodard (Tuesday, March 30, 2021, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET)
Produced by Jamila Ephron, this new documentary tells of a horrific, little-known incident of racial violence by police that became a powerful catalyst for the civil rights movement. In 1946, Isaac Woodard, a Black army sergeant on his way home to South Carolina after serving in WWII, was pulled from a bus for arguing with the driver. The local chief of police savagely beat him, leaving him unconscious and permanently blind. The shocking incident made national headlines and, when the police chief was acquitted by an all-white jury, the blatant injustice would change the course of American history. Based on Richard Gergel’s book Unexampled Courage, the film details how the crime led to the racial awakening of President Harry Truman, who desegregated federal offices and the military two years later. The event also ultimately set the stage for the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which finally outlawed segregation in public schools and jumpstarted the modern civil rights movement.

American Oz (Monday, April 12, 2021, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET)
When L. Frank Baum published The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1900, he was 44 years old and had spent much of his life in restless pursuit of his American dream. After working and failing at a string of odd jobs that honed his instincts for showmanship — chicken breeder, actor, marketer of petroleum products, shopkeeper, newspaperman and traveling salesman — Baum and his family headed west from their home in Syracuse, New York, in 1888. During his travels from Chicago to the Great Plains during the American frontier’s final days, he witnessed a nation coming to terms with the economic uncertainty of the Gilded Age. But he never lost his childlike sense of wonder and eventually crafted his observations into an enduring, magical tale of survival, adventure and self-discovery. Produced by Randall MacLowry and Tracy Heather Strain, American Oz tells the remarkable story of the man behind one of the most beloved and quintessential American classics, which has been reinterpreted through the generations in films, books and musicals.

Billy Graham (Monday, May 17, 2021; 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET)
Produced by Sarah Colt, Billy Graham explores the life and career of one of the best-known and most influential Christian leaders of the 20th century. From humble beginnings on a North Carolina farm, Graham rose to prominence with a fiery preaching style and folksy charm. His fundamentalist sermons harnessed the apocalyptic anxieties of a post-atomic world, exhorting audiences to adopt the only possible solution: devoting one’s life to Christ. An international celebrity by the age of 30, he built a media empire, preached to millions worldwide, and had the ear of tycoons, presidents, and royalty. Billy Graham examines the evangelist’s extraordinary influence on American politics and culture from 1949 to 1980, interweaving the voices of historians, scholars, witnesses, followers, friends, family, and Graham himself to create a kaleidoscopic portrait of a singular figure in the American experience.