Slave hunting requires whiskey….A new play looks at racism in the IU community in the middle of the 20th century
by Bill Breeden
I am honored to play small parts in Stories of Monroe, a play by Gladys DeVane in collaboration with Danielle Bruce and Elizabeth Mitchell. As a sixty-nine year old theater rookie, it’s nice to work with some very talented actors, in a play with a message critical to our present morass of xenophobia, racism, and nationalism. A people who cannot face who they’ve been cannot know who they are, and cannot become who they need to be. This is our history, local, with recognizable names. It is painful, yet redemptive to visit.
During the first read-through, I found myself struggling to control my emotions as I listened to the stories of Joel and Tony, two runaway slaves who passed through Bloomington in the early 19th century, travelling the Underground Railroad that carried runaways to Canada. It is a story of villains and victims as well as heroes and healers of the national disease that infects our nation on both sides of the Mason/Dixon line. The play doesn’t remain in the distant past but follows the ravages of that racist malady and the struggle for justice in Bloomington and specifically in the IU community through the middle of the 20th century. The echoes of runaway slaves resound in the stories of George Taliaferro, Denver Smith, and the many unnamed African Americans who suffered from, and struggled against, systemic institutional racism.
Perhaps that first read-through weighed heavy on me because I was reminded that I am a son-of-a-sundown town. When I grew up, no person of color could be found after dark in Odon, Indiana, for fear of loss of life or limb. I know racism, because I was a racist, reared in racist culture. That is not to say that my family, my church community, and my hometown folks were bad people. They were wonderful people who loved their children, and believed in the American Dream because they had never been forced to live the American nightmare.
As I read through this script, I was reminded of the first African Americans I ever knew personally. My coming to know them was an accident of history, religion, and location, location, location.
My family lived five miles east of Odon. It so happened in the mid-sixties that a minister was sent to serve a church in our very conservative town. His bishop either didn’t like him, or just had a hankering to see what would happen. The minister was a holiness minister, but a social liberal. He supported civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War. The congregation loved his preaching but disliked his politics.
The minister had the right to call whomever he pleased to aid in the fall and spring revivals. He called “Walking” Bill and Blanche Smith. He was called Walking Bill cause he couldn’t sing without walking, and Blanche played honky-tonk gospel piano so hot it pealed the paint off the walls. A few weeks before the revival meeting, the minister and my Pappy were fishing together, and he turned to Pappy and said,
“I got a favor to ask of you.”
“This evangelistic team’s coming for the fall revival and I need a place for them to stay.”
“Our evangelists usually stay with our preacher in the parsonage.”
“Well, they can’t stay in the parsonage, or in the hotel either.”
“Because they’re black.”
“They’re holiness evangelists?”
“They sound like white people to me, they can stay at our house.”
And so it was that Walking Bill and Blanche became honorary “white folks” to my family. (“Black” wasn’t’ good enough.) Ironically, the local church fell in love with them and called them back for three years running. They stayed at our small farm in the country. They were Uncle Bill and Aunt Blanche to me.
Perhaps the pain I felt in the reading of Stories of Monroe is related to the pain I saw in Walking Bill’s eyes one night at the holiness camp meeting when truckloads of locals drove by hollering, “Get them niggers out of town! We got laws around here!”
Let us look at our past, that we may determine our future. I hope you see the play.