In 1984 I met Ruthe Winegarten at an ethnic women's conference at Southwest Texas State University. Ruthe had just published her oral history of Annie Mae Hunt, I Am Annie Mae, and she expressed a desire to see her book made into a musical. I was a music teacher, and I had read all these books and done research on African American music from field hollers to jazz. I thought, "Sure, I can do this." So I went home to Houston, wrote half a dozen songs, and in three years I Am Annie Mae: The Musical, had its premiere at St. Edward's University with eight sold-out performances. Ruthe's idea became a ninety-minute show with eighteen songs, performed by a cast of twelve. The process of writing that musical changed my life. I knew that my history revolved around the history of Annie Mae, and her ancestors, and my ancestors, and all our ancestors here in the state of Texas.
Eleven years later, and after many shows of the musical from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Atlanta, Georgia, and from Austin to Minneapolis, I was invited to use my knowledge of slave music in a lecture demonstration for a symposium on the antebellum plantations of Brazoria County. That performance of "Pick a Bale o' Cotton" resulted in an invitation to do interpretation of slave history for the George Ranch Historical Park's annual Texian Market Days Festival. Several years later, in 1998, I found myself back in Brazoria County at the invitation of the Brazoria County Museum to write interpretive plays for their Austin Town Festival. Hence began my work in the area of living history interpretation.
A Houston Chronicle article dated January 21, 2001, is titled "Putting a Face on Slavery: The history of Texas slavery is being told with new voices, from a new perspective." I am pictured on the cover of the Chronicle's Zest magazine, dressed in nineteenth-century clothes, holding a broom. Each play offered here marks my effort to "put a face on slavery," from a new perspective, with a new voice.
Texas is often referred to as the gateway to the great Southwest. Its distinction as a slave state is often lost to the southwestern image of cowboy culture. Hence the history that illumines the peculiar institution in Texas is off the record. And consequently, the enslaved pioneers who contributed to clearing the fields, building the roads, and harvesting cotton and cane have had little or no significance. It is as if a whole chapter of African American triumph has gone largely unrecognized. Hopefully the plays in this book will shed light on some individuals whose personal stories offer a fresh glimpse into the period between 1821 and 1930. The plays are grouped together in seven chapters covering the broad subjects of celebrations, family breakup, running away, battles, the Civil War, emancipation, and the Reconstruction, each with an overview and production notes. An appendix with lesson plans for each play is also included for teachers and students desiring further study.
Concurrent with the absence or scarcity of African American history from the textbooks, my own knowledge of that history was filled with doubt and wonder, with far too many missing links. As a young college student at the University of North Texas in the late sixties, the urgency of that time during the civil rights movement encouraged me to learn more about myself. Exactly who were my people? Why were they treated differently? Where had they come from and what had been their experiences? My parents, like others before them, simply did not talk too much about the past, except for some anecdotal stories about loved ones. Those painful stories of old were left in the past, while we grew up with fresh hopes for things to be different in the future, unburdened by slavery and Jim Crow. My research carried me further and further back, back to slavery, back to Africa, to the shores of Elmina from which many in chains embarked to the New World, and today, I look at the period of enslavement as an empowerment, a triumph over insurmountable obstacles by the strongest, by the bravest, by those most clever to survive.
I hope these stories will encourage other students of history, from every culture and circumstance, for these stories not only illumine the African Americans involved—the blacks, the Negroes and the coloreds—but the whites and the Mexicans, all of whose cultures were interwoven as they depended on each other to survive the conditions of wilderness, work, and war. The American Indians, though not written about at-length on these pages, are involved also because it was they who the European settlers displaced. As all these cultural threads weave themselves in and around the era of colonization—the Texas War for Independence, the Civil War, and Reconstruction—relationships were the guiding force of human interaction, and the utilization of skills and human labor guided politics and economics. Both then and now relationships triumph over race and skills triumph over racism. The undeniable strength of African American ingenuity rises to the surface in each of these stories, and in the end, slavery is not to be scorned or ridiculed but revisited as an example of achievement and victory.
It all came together for me during three particular episodes in 2007: (1) my trip to the Gold Coast of Ghana, West Africa; (2) two trips to Belize, Central America; and (3) a tour of Nottoway Plantation on the Mississippi River in White Castle, Louisiana. Admittedly, I knew very little about Africa prior to going there. In addition, following my return from Africa, I was employed by the Houston International Festival to do research on African civilizations to 1900. After these experiences, gaps in my understanding of the African and African American experience came together in one continuum of historical experiences, exemplified in similarities between two fishing villages and two slave castles: the slave castle at Elmina, Ghana, a small fishing village; Ladyville, Belize, another small fishing village; and the Nottoway Plantation castle, just south of Baton Rouge at the edge of sugar cane fields, where the fifty-three-thousand-square-foot mansion, the largest plantation home in the South, stands overlooking the Mississippi River.
A culture transplanted? Many cultures transplanted, European and African. The combination of prevailing colonial influences, of domination, and of resistance has yielded a history that reflects the indomitable spirit that encouraged Africans in America to be free to control their own destiny. It is that spirit that is celebrated in each of the plays presented here.
Each of these plays represents a commission by a historic site to create a research-based vignette that shows the inclusiveness of African Americans to the history of Texas. What they invariably show is the interdependence of all cultures in the site portrayed: the relationships of master to the enslaved, of the enslaved to the landowners, of master to his family, of enslaved families to each other, of people to the land. All these themes are central to each play. At a time in our history where the economics of land ownership included owning humans, the dynamics of domination inevitably resulted in resistance. Slaves in Texas ran away to Mexico. They were often assisted by Mexicans, sometimes by Germans, and at times by American Indians. The close proximity of Mexico necessitated stricter controls for Texas plantation owners, especially in East and South Texas. The ex-slave narratives yield many stories about feeding runaways and crossing the Rio Grande. Today when stories of the Underground Railroad come up, I tell people about these heroic escapes to Mexico and they are unbelievably surprised; they've "never heard no such a'thang." This is representative of the many other things they never heard of, like the freedom colonies that surfaced following slavery and during the reconstruction of African American lives. Hopefully these plays will help dispel some of the myths associated with slavery and emancipation, particularly in Texas. I am even more hopeful that the characters herein will add some much-needed humanity to the enslaved as being intelligent and sensitive individuals who loved each other in the face of severe obstacles; who never lost sight of freedom even when forced to stay on with their masters following emancipation; and who transformed their African culture into a new culture, fully Afrocentric in nature, to create new celebrations and new music and a whole new literature that celebrates folk heroes.
Two significant events put African American history in the spotlight in the year 2009: the inauguration of Barack Obama and the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth. As Americans and Texans (who were so much in the spotlight during the Bush presidency) came to grips with the reality of the election of their first African American president, there was no end to the historical comparisons of Obama and Lincoln, particularly with regard to the troubled times during which each took office. Though some conservatives question the comparison, there are several undeniable similarities between the sixteenth and the forty-fourth presidents: both were tall lawyers from Illinois, though born in other states, both grew up with one parent absent, and both entered the office of the president with only eight years of experience in the legislature. All of this, plus the whistle-stop train trips they took to their respective inaugurations, highlighted the drama surrounding America's race relations prior to the Civil War—a war that President Lincoln opposed—and the importance of race relations prior to the election of the first African American president, Barack Obama—who was opposed to the war in Iraq. These events propelled America into a post-racial society and brought us closer to the revolutionary theme of the founding fathers that all men are created equal. They also prompted many of us to question the validity of American democracy in light of its institution of slavery. African Americans began to want to know more about their history, and they questioned how that history is taught in schools and universities, as well as how they are portrayed in the media.
Texas is annually in the spotlight because of Juneteenth, the only holiday that is a reminder of emancipation. When we celebrate Juneteenth, a state holiday in Texas and many other states, we celebrate equality for ourselves and for our nation. On this day, we recognize the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation and freedom from slavery in a nation capable of overcoming the ideologies of racism. Wherever we go we carry Juneteenth with us, because it is a part of who we are. We are proud of what we have accomplished, and we are proud of the living history of African American Texans.
The names of most primary characters in these plays are real. Giving them faces, feelings, intelligence, and dignity makes the events that happened to them live again. It is my fond hope that these stories will inspire readers to dig deeper into the history of their communities, to research their families, to conduct interviews, to record oral histories, and to preserve more stories. In the words of an African proverb, "Until the lion writes his story, the tale will forever glorify the hunter."