Thirteen years before he was elected this nation’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln represented a Kentucky slave owner named Robert Matson in his attempt to recover a runaway slave woman and her four children in rural Illinois. Most people, even those with a penchant for U.S. history, have never heard of this extraordinary legal case.
The actors of Freetown Village bring this unfamiliar nugget of Lincoln lore to life in “Lincoln’s Trial and Tribulations,” traveling to Oakland, Ill. for performances on Aug. 16 and again on Sept. 9. In its sixth year, “Lincoln’s Trial and Tribulations” depicts the story of the 1847 Matson Slave Trial which was argued in a small rural Illinois courthouse. The performance explores the question of slavery, Lincoln’s involvement as a lawyer for the slave owner, and the role of the townspeople in assisting the locally held slaves.
“Here’s the ‘Great Emancipator’ fighting to keep someone enslaved. It was a great historical conundrum,” said Renee Henry, “Lincoln Trial and Tribulations” program coordinator. “The whole trial was precedent-setting.”
The court case marked the only time in Lincoln’s legal career where he represented a slave owner. His involvement in the case has troubled and bewildered most students and biographers of the “Great Emancipator.”
The partnership with Freetown Village, Henry said, is obvious. “There’s nobody better to do African-American (historic) interpretation. They are the leading experts in the interpretation of early African-American life. They bring a level of passion and professionalism that’s unmatched,” she said.
Freetown Village actors portray Jane Bryant, the runaway and her husband Anthony
Bryant, who served Matson as a foreman on Black Grove farm, a tract of land in Coles County, Ill owned by the Kentucky slave owner. Although Illinois at the time was a free state, its law was rather indulgent of Southern planters like Matson. They were allowed to bring their slaves into the state to work their land, as long as it was on a temporary basis. Permanent residence automatically conferred freedom. Antony Bryant was a permanent resident of Black Grove and thus became free man. The roles are portrayed by Michelle Mimms-Duchan and LeVelle Harris.
Freetown Village Founding Director Ophelia Wellington said she hopes the living history museum remains a creative partner of “Lincoln’s Trials and Tribulations” for many years to come. “This program gives us yet another rich opportunity to showcase our range of being able to portray African-American history and culture.”
“Lincoln’s Trial and Tribulations” includes a dinner meal typical of what would’ve been served in 1847 and the performance. For ticket reservations, go to http://www.matsontrial1847.org/