With a cheerily patriotic title of “America! Conceived in Liberty,” you might expect a program that glosses over some of our country’s less-than-glorious moments.
But that’s not the case with this year’s Buncombe County Chautauqua, a week’s worth of thoughtful entertainment in which five costumed scholars will portray early American historical figures under a big outdoor tent.
“The intellectual content is a little more substantial than you often find in public entertainment,” offers Laura Gaskin, head of the Buncombe County Chautauqua Committee. “There’s discussion of ideas. There’s discussion of what historical events led to others.”
While the program includes founding father heavies such as Thomas Jefferson, it also features lesser-known figures such as Elizabeth “Mumbet” Freeman — who, as a slave in Massachusetts, clearly was not afforded the same rights as white men and women in the newly-established country.
Although Freeman may not be widely known, her story is remarkable. With the help of a lawyer, she sued her master for her freedom in the early 1780s — and won.
“I just think it shows how brave she was,” suggests Greenville, S.C., resident Dawn Jefferson, who will portray Freeman for the Chautauqua.
Born around 1744 in Massachusetts, Freeman and her sister were purchased by Col. John Ashley of Sheffield, according to Rayford W. Logan, co-editor of the Dictionary of American Negro Biography. (Various sources provide slightly different accounts of events, and even her slave name is reported both as Mumbet and Mum Bett.)
In Ashley’s house, Mumbet had overhead conversations about the Bill of Rights and the new constitution of Massachusetts, Logan wrote.
“She overhead them say, ‘All men are created equal,’ and she wondered, ‘Why couldn’t it apply to me?'” says Jefferson.
So when Mumbet was injured while protecting her younger sister from her mistress — who was wielding a heated shovel — she resolved to take action. The next day, she appealed to a lawyer, Theodore Sedgwick, who agreed to take her case.
Another of Ashley’s slaves, a man named Brom, joined the lawsuit, according to PBS’ Africans in America series. The case was argued before a county court — and the jury ruled in the slaves’ favor. The ruling made them the first African-American slaves set free under the 1780 Massachusetts constitution (plus, Ashley had to pay them 30 shillings and costs).
The victory set a precedent upheld by the state courts in the Quock Walker case — leading ultimately to the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, according to Africans in America.
To tell their stories, Dawn Jefferson and the other Chautauqua scholars first will appear in character, drawing on their subjects’ actual words.
In Freeman’s case, Jefferson has some gems from which to choose: “Any time, any time while I was a slave, if one minute’s freedom had been offered to me, and I had been told I must die at the end of that minute, I would have taken it — just to stand one minute on God’s airth a free woman — I would.”
After the characters give their perspectives, audience members will have a chance to ask questions. Then the scholars will step out of character to answer questions from a contemporary perspective.
This modern event hearkens back to the traveling tent Chautauquas that were popular across the country in the early 1900s. In Asheville, the Redpath company brought its tent and programs to town from 1920 through 1928. But motion pictures and the Great Depression doomed the old shows.
In more recent times, a national Chautauqua tour has given the idea new life. Regionally, the concept was successfully revived two years ago, with performances taking place in Asheville and Greenville, S.C. The Friends of Buncombe County Libraries and the Buncombe County Chautauqua Committee are presenting this year’s Asheville event.
Though some have wondered whether “America! Conceived in Liberty” was a response to the events of Sept. 11, Gaskin says the theme was adopted last summer.
However, “because of the events of September 11, we’re likely to get some very interesting questions,” Gaskin predicts.
But then, the very nature of a Chautauqua is designed to provoke reflection.
“It makes people think,” Gaskin suggests.