Yesterday, I walked at the Alton mall. I met an artist, Erick, who was preparing to sketch what will be a very large mural depicting Alton history, on the east wall, on the second floor. I introduced myself and we talked. I reminded Erick that Hal Holbrook, in narrating Ken Burns’ great documentary, “The Civil War,” spoke this opening sentence (paraphrasing): It could be said that the first shot of the Civil War was fired in Alton, Illinois, on November 7, 1837, when an assassin gunned down the outspoken abolitionist, Elijah P. Lovejoy. And then I told Erick the following story.Read more…
In 1997, The National Park Service commissioned me to write a play about the Underground Railroad in Illinois. I was given the services of two archaeologists and a historian, to help me in my research. The archaeologists took me for hikes in the Shawnee National Forest, walking the very trails forged by escaped slaves in the nineteenth century. One of them told me I should read a book by author Glennette Tilly Turner, and I was given Ms. Turner’s phone number. I called her when I got back to Chicago, and she couldn’t have been more enthusiastic and helpful.
The play, “Water Brought Us and Water’s Gonna Take Us Away,” premiered at Prop Theater, in 2002. It had a second production at Columbia College (they turned it into a rousing musical, with Negro spirituals), and then the play began its life as a touring Readers Theatre production, at various national parks, for the pleasure of tourists.
A year later, I got a phone call from Glennette Tilly Turner. Would I do her the honor of attending her Martin Luther King speech, on the anniversary of Dr. King’s death, at the Lilly Reed Holt Memorial Chapel, at Lake Forest College? Oh, yes, I would.
I drove to the chapel on the appointed day, a cold midafternoon, and I sat in a pew, at the back of the historic sanctuary. There was an overflow crowd, and the excitement was palpable. I hadn’t met Glennette in person; she couldn’t have known that the shave-headed, tattooed man in the audience was Ewing Eugene Baldwin.
The president of the college introduced Ms. Turner, the author of several books. From a side door near the front walked a bespectacled, smiling, elegantly dressed black woman, perhaps sixty-five years old. The crowd treated her like a rock star. She hugged the president then turned to the podium and began to deliver her speech. At the end of the talk, she came to these words: “There is a young playwright in the audience—Ewing Eugene Baldwin. We haven’t met yet, but I feel that we are friends. Mr. Baldwin has honored me by writing a play about the Underground Railroad and using my book as a resource. Eugene, my fellow artist, I hope you are here, or I have put my foot in my mouth.” I waved, and the crowd applauded. Ms. Turner asked me to stand, me in a black tee shirt and jeans and my only sport coat. Black people around me reached out to shake my hand. It was a shining moment.
After the speech, Glennette and I held hands and walked across the street for dinner, in an old Lake Forest mansion that had been given to the college. I was seated at a table with my new friend and many of her friends. We enjoyed a sumptuous banquet, and I was very happy.
After dinner, people clanged their glasses with forks, preparing, I thought, for a toast to Ms. Turner. She stood and thanked everyone for coming. Then she said, “Eugene, did you like your seat?” That sounded a bit odd, but I nodded, yes. The other diners were laughing; they knew what was coming. “Dr. King,” Glennette said, “stayed overnight in this very house, when he came to Chicago, in the sixties. And Gene, you are sitting at his table, in his chair.” My skinny butt got tingly, like I was sitting on a live electric wire. “And you are using Dr. King’s plate and fork.” Tears spurted from my eyes. I stood up, crossed to Glennette and kissed her. We hugged, to a resounding ovation.
In South Carolina circa 1830, a slave ship weighed anchor in Charleston Harbor. Row boats brought the manacled prisoners to the beach. Five Yoruba tribesmen, shackled together, turned as one and strode into the ocean. They chanted, “Water brought us and water’s gonna take us away!” They disappeared into the waves and walked home to Africa.
In Princeton, Illinois, Billy, a young boy with a harelip—his classmates called him “Duckbill”—helped his father drive a hay wagon with a false bottom, inside of which were escaped slaves, to the next Underground Railroad stop, ten miles further north. Billy’s father was shot to death by men opposed to his stand on slavery. In adulthood, Bill grew an elegant mustache and rode west to make his fortune. Wild Bill Hickock—he had changed his nickname, you see—died in 1876, during a poker game in Deadwood, Dakota Territory.
I have so many other stories, about the mostly Scottish people, mostly Presbyterians, formerly of New England, who took a stand and risked their lives, to save innocent African people. I was told them by my friend, in books and anecdotes. Glennette Turner is but one of many reasons that I am a rich and blessed man. When I am despairing, I forget the richness. It is human, to do this.
But today, I sing.