EMANCIPATION, INTERPRETED

 

BY NEH STAFF, NATIONAL ENDOWMENT FOR THE HUMANITIES

 

In October 2012, three students from around the country were named the winners of National Endowment for the Humanities' Emancipation Nation Student Contest to submit a piece of original creative writing that reinterpreted or responded to historic documents contained in two NEH-supported online databases: The Freedmen and Southern Society Project and Visualizing Emancipation. NEH spoke with these three young writers about the inspiration behind their winning entries.

Drew Barker, 31, writer, teacher, and dramaturg, has been awarded first place in the National Endowment for the Humanities Emancipation NationStudent Contest for his one-act play, Freedom’s Fortress.

Freedom’s Fortress tells the story of Fort Monroe off the coast of Hampton, Virginia, as a Union- Army-held refuge for former slaves during the Civil War.  The freedmen and women were called contrabands--goods, war materiel-- that could be seized from belligerents during wartime.  The fort was made a National Monument in 2011.

Drawn from testimony by the Superintendent of Contrabands before the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission in 1863 and from the author’s imaginative reconstruction of the scene, the play uses records kept in the University of Maryland’s Freedmen and Southern Society Projectarchive and draws on his own considerable reading in the humanities.

Barker was born in North Dakota, where his father was an Air Force officer in the Strategic Air Command, and at one time, the holder of one of the two keys that were required to activate missiles during a nuclear attack. He grew up in Montana, California, Tennessee and North Carolina. A theater and education graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, he taught high school English and theater for four years and worked as an artistic associate at the Triad Stage in Greensboro.

He and his wife, Kelsey Hunt, are both candidates for Master’s Degrees at the University of Maryland, he in Theatre and Performance Studies, and she in Costume Design. 

Your play, Freedom’s Fortress, takes place at Fort Monroe, one of the country’s newest National Monuments.  Had you seen the fort? 

I had never heard of Fort Monroe. I was scrolling through the dozens of Civil War letters and reports in the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland looking for something that I could see playing out in my head.  I was completely taken by the candor and travesty recorded in the Testimony of the Superintendent of Contrabands before the American Freedman’s Inquiry Commission—and it was already in dialog form.

What was it about this particular historical document that attracted you?

The line that stood out to me the most was, “They are getting their eyes open.”  Runaways were coming into the fort, going back to get their families, but sometimes being sold back to their masters for $20 or $50—by Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers. This is something crazy that happened, but I never heard about it. On the other hand, the superintendent testified that “colored men will help colored men,” and I wondered about how that could become something mythic.

Where did you get the idea that Fort Monroe was haunted? 

The land that Fort Monroe occupies has been inhabited in one form or another for centuries.  It’s a piece of land that has seen some horrendous history.  I heard Amiri Baraka read poetry at Lenoir-Rhyne University in North Carolina years ago and I’ve always remembered the line he read, “at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean there's a railroad made of human bones.” In my play the contraband, James, testifies that he has experienced something similar— but it’s more immediate and personal.

In Freedom’s Fortress, Confederate President Jefferson Davis tells former slaves that the war doesn’t have anything to do with them.  Where does this come from?

Jefferson Davis and Jubal Early were brazen after the war, cooking up the idea of the “Lost Cause,” writing about it and acting as advisors on other books that popularized it.  If you are in charge of one of the worst mistakes in American history—wouldn’t you want to be in charge of your own PR campaign?    

What’s up with the big dead bird, stinking, that is hanging around Jefferson Davis’ neck, chains rattling, as the former president is talking to himself?  

That’s my rough-hewn allusion to “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where the mariner kills the albatross that led his ship out of the Antarctic and is forced to wear the dead bird around his neck.  After the war, Jefferson Davis was actually imprisoned for two years at Fort Monroe.  His relentless denial of the cause of the war makes him talk to himself. 

You spent much the early part of your life in the northwest where your Dad was in the Air Force.  What did you make of the Civil War?

I didn’t focus on it.  When we moved to North Carolina, where much of my family resides, I saw all the Confederate flags and I thought, “why are they celebrating a loss?” I am taking a course in the Civil War now taught by Dr. Leslie Rowland, and I’m always reading plays and books that show the uglier side of American history.  Frederick Douglass said, “Without struggle there is no progress,” and I think we have to see that struggle in order to know our own progress.   

 

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