Press Release:Performance highlights Black History Month
The issue of diversity is still an American agenda in schools, government, communities and the corporate world.
Author and historian Willie Payne has spent decades thinking of creative and innovative ways to improve today’s race relations, cultural and diversity awareness.
He has discovered the collaboration of Americans to abolish slavery is a great lesson.
His salt and pepper beard, brown knickers, boots and a white ruffled white shirt help him slip into the character of an antebellum slave laborer for his hour-long stage narrative, “The Underground Railroad’s Michigan Connection” written, produced and directed by Payne.
“The movement shows that even in the mist of slavery, men and women despite their differences in culture and religions came together to create a great passageway to freedom via the Underground Railroad,” explained, Payne.
In it, Payne, a Spearsville native and retired Michigan police officer, takes his audience on the actual journey traveled by southern slaves through Michigan. He introduces the audience to abolitionists and free blacks who aided the slaves via the Underground Railroad.
Accompanied by a drummer, Thomas Wheeler, interpretive dancers and Grambling State University Choir members, singers of Negro Spirituals, Payne will launch his award winning performance February 16, at the Farmerville Recreation Center in conjunction with Black History Month.
Dance and song in the performance demonstrate and explain how runaways orchestrated escape plans.
While working as a Michigan news reporter, Payne heard that Cass County, Michigan boasts the highest percentage of mixed ancestry relationships in the state and began researching the claim. He discovered Cass County was the beginning of the underground railroad in Michigan. He also learned the intermingling of African slaves, Quakers and Native Americans produced the large race mix.
This discovery sparked his curiosity and compelled him to find other stops. After years of researching Michigan’s link in the Underground Railroad, he wrote a magazine article about his findings.
Payne said, “the stage performance came several years later as a vehicle to educate people and preserve that part of American History omitted from history books.”
According to Payne’s research, the Underground Railroad got its name when pursuers of an escaping slave said he seemed to have disappeared after swimming the Ohio River. Slave hunters said he disappeared into an underground road. The road then became a railroad and the abolitionists adopted railroad jargon for their network.
People helping the slaves were call conductors and the hiding places were stations ( homes, sheds, or barns) usually 10 to 20 miles apart. Slaves usually traveled at night on foot or in wagons beds where they would hide underneath hay, cotton, corn and other farm produce.
The performance also relates to the story of the Adam Crosswhite family, fugitive slaves from Kentucky who were welcomed to Marshall, Michigan. There, Crosswhite built a house and enrolled his children into the Marshall schools. When the slave hunters tried to capture him in 1847, some 300 angry townspeople forced the sheriff to arrest the slave hunters. The Crosswhites were then transported to Detroit and eventually into Canada where they got their citizenship.
In that Michigan was a free state, (opposed slavery) most southern slaves came through South Bend Indiana and crossed over into Michigan which was their final resting place before crossing into Canada where slavery was abolished in 1793.
The Crosswhite affair created outrage in Kentucky and throughout the south, causing the rewrite of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 which increased fines up to $3,000 for anyone found guilty of harboring southern fugitive slaves.
Another part of the show speaks to Uncle Tom’s Legacy and the misconception American’s have of ” Uncle Tom” whose actual name was Josiah Henson, a Methodist minister who was immortalized in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s pre-Civil War story, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Payne contends that of the 16 million slaves uprooted from Africa between 1600 and the end of the Civil War, about have lost their lives while trying to escape or by being allowed to die because they were useless.
“Though they were brought here to become laborers, they carved out a different destiny for themselves and others with help from Michiganders, both whites and free blacks, Payne added.
“As descendants of the slaves, Blacks now occupy a variety of trades and professions, ranging from tenant farmers, stars of the theatre, champions in the field of sports to generals in the Arm Forces.
“Even though we are still largely of African decent, many are of mixed ancestry, Caucasian, Native American, Asian, and Hispanic. We vary in sizes from very broad features to thin. Our skin tones range for very dark complexion to near white. Our hair texture vary from crinkly, curly, to silken golden blond.”
Payne concluded, ” This performance gives one a minimum of understanding of historical reality. No matter what part of American History we discussed , we fine that Africans and African Americans played significant roles in the development of this country. From the discovery of the new world to modern day inventions, Black History is American History.”
Tickets for the Feb. 16, performance at the Farmerville Recreation Center can be purchased at Union Federal Credit Union, 802 Martin Luther King Dr., Farmerville. Cost is $10 adults and $5 for college students with ID and children age 16 and under.
For ticket and performance information, call Blooming Grove Baptist Church at 368-9583. Proceeds will benefit the Ministerial Alliance & Alcus and Eddie Payne Scholarship Fund.
Payne will also lecture on the Underground Railroad at noon each Thursday in February at the Union Parish Library in Farmerville. For information call 318-368-9288.