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Ensemble brings a cultural perspective to historical theater.

Slave auction, emancipation
highlight historical vignettes

Most any kid raised in Texas can tell a tale or two about Sam Houston, the distinguished Huntsvillian whose legacy will be celebrated at a three-day festival beginning Friday on the Sam Houston Memorial Museum grounds at Sam Houston State University.

"I feel that Sam Houston, having lived with the Cherokees, had a lot of compassion for diverse populations."

Naomi Grundy Co-founder
Talking Back
Living History Theatre

There was Houston, "The Raven," an adopted Cherokee who championed American Indian rights; General Houston, commander-in-chief of the Texas Army and hero of the Battle of San Jacinto; President Houston, twice-elected leader of the fledgling republic; Senator Houston, representing his new state in the nation's capital; Governor Houston, removed from office for refusing to pledge allegiance to the Confederacy; and even, citizen Houston, a family man and unwavering patriot living out his final days in his beloved Huntsville.

But there's another, uncelebrated side of this illustrious Texas icon -- Houston the slave owner -- a wealthy man who listed 12 human beings, worth a little more than $10,500, among his valued assets.

Slavery, an unsettling but significant part of everyday life in the Sam Houston household, will be the focus of a series of theatrical vignettes slated for several performances this Saturday during the museum's General Sam Houston Folk Festival.

"Telling the whole story of everything that took place on our grounds has been a long-term goal of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum," explained Patrick Nolan, museum director. "That story involves, not just the Houston family, but their extended family which included a number of black slaves - more blacks than whites if you add the numbers up."

To portray the close relationship between the Houstons and their slaves, the museum has enlisted Talking Back Living History Theatre, a Houston-based professional theatrical group that specializes in interpreting the past with a fresh perspective.

"Our commitment is to add diversity to Texas history," explained Naomi Grundy, who with her husband, Allen, founded the thespian troupe. "We use research and oral histories to develop short plays, or vignettes, which encourage an active rather than passive curiosity about history."

The two 30-minutes plays to be performed throughout the day Saturday were penned by Grundy, who in addition to teaching humanities is an award-winning author and composer.

The stories, she said, are taken directly from accounts by former Houston slaves recorded in two books: "My Master, Sam Houston," written by Jeff Hamilton, who as a 13-year-old slave was purchased by Houston; and, "From Slave to Statesman," a book by Jane Monday and Pat Prather exploring Houston's relationship with Joshua Houston, the trusted servant and blacksmith who would later become an influential black leader and politician in post-civil war Texas.

Grundy's research revealed Houston as an exceptionally gracious and humane slave master.

"He was considerate," she said. "I feel that Sam Houston, having lived with the Cherokees, had a lot of compassion for diverse populations."

That compassion is clearly demonstrated in Grundy's vignette, "A Little Slave for Sale--Cheap!" The play follows Hamilton's recollections of his first encounter with Houston, in 1853, as a frightened slave child standing on the auction block in front of the old Gibb's store in downtown Huntsville.

According to Hamilton's book, he stood for hours in the hot October sun enduring taunts from onlookers as his master, "a devil of a man," tried to sell him to pay two overdue whisky bills.

Upon encountering the spectacle, Houston purchased the teary-eyed slave child and, according to Hamilton, took him home to be a playmate for his own son.

"When he bought Jeff Hamilton," Grundy said, "it is my feeling from reading Jeff's account of it, that he felt sorry for him."

From the horror of the town square auction block to the sanctuary of Houston's Woodlands Home, the "Little Slave" vignette proceeds to paint a portrait of everyday domestic life with the Houstons.

"This gives us an opportunity to help the audience understand what it was like to live with all of these people," said Grundy. "There are misconceptions among both blacks and whites as to the role slaves played during that period in history."

At the Houston home it is known that the slaves were very much a part of the family, responsible for food, menus, traveling and maintenance of the children.

"This is something that we try to point out in our piece," said Grundy. "The difference in living history and other kinds of plays is that living history performances have to reflect actual fact. The extent to which you use fiction is only when there is an absence of fact, and even then, you are committed to depend on whatever historical facts exist."

During Saturday's festival performances volunteers from the audience will be furnished with cue cards and given a chance to join the action.

"This makes the story more interactive and gives people an opportunity to feel what was going on by being a part of it," Grundy explained.

The second Talking Back vignette, "Porch Politics, Sam Houston Style," chronicles a well-told tale that has become synonymous with the Houston legend.

As the story goes, when news of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation reached Texas, Houston called all of his slaves together on the front porch of his Huntsville home. Though Lincoln's order freeing slaves was ineffectual in a Confederate Texas, Houston honored it anyway. He told them they were free to leave or welcomed to stay on with the family, receiving a wage for their work.

They all agreed to stay.

This unanimous decision presents an interesting philosophical contradiction that Grundy hopes the "Porch Politics" play will illuminate.

"On the one hand, you might say, how is it possible that a slave would not want to be emancipated?" she said. "But then, you could also ask, why would a slave want to leave the only family and security he has ever known?"

Since Talking Back Living History Theatre was founded in 1998, the Grundys and their ensemble, which now boasts 25 professional thespians, have performed a variety of plays depicting aspects of history often glossed over in the old grammar school texts.

"There is always excitement about these pieces," said Grundy. "They often provoke sentiments that sometimes people didn't know they had. Sometimes they are painful. Sometimes they are healing. I've had people cry. I've had people laugh. But it is my feeling that until we actually confront the pain that slavery provokes as individuals, whatever race we are, we can't get past it."

The General Sam Houston Folk Festival runs Friday through Sunday on the 15-acre grounds of the Sam Houston Memorial Museum in Huntsville, Texas.

The Talking Back Living History Theatre performances will be staged on Saturday only. "Little Slave for Sale -- Cheap!" can be seen at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. "Porch Politics: Houston Style" plays at 10 a.m., 11:45 a.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

For more information on the 1999 General Sam Houston Folk Festival, call the Sam Houston Memorial Museum at (409) 294-1832.

- END -

Text by Phillip Rollfing
April 12, 1999
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