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Celebrate Frederick Douglass’ life and legacy at Conner Prairie

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Many may not realize Frederick Douglass visited the area now known as Noblesville during his lifetime. Conner Prairie wants to change that. In July, the interactive museum will commemorate the abolitionist’s visits to Indiana during Douglass’ bicentennial year.

Asante Children’s Theatre will perform “More Light: Douglass Returns” and the great-great-great grandson of Douglass and great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington, Kenneth B. Morris, will attend performances and give away copies of Douglass’ autobiography. 

Celeste Williams, playwright of “More Light: Douglass Returns”; Keesha Dixon, executive director of Asante Children’s Theatre, and Catherine Hughes, director of Museum Theatre and Research at Conner Prairie discuss the upcoming celebration.

 Recorder: Many people aren’t aware of Frederick Douglass’ connection to Indiana?

Catherine Hughes: It is a surprise for audiences to learn of his two visits to Indiana, one infamous in Pendleton and the next a huge welcoming rally in Noblesville. Frederick Douglass did not speak in Noblesville in 1880 by accident. It was the concerted effort of a local Republican committee with members from the Roberts Settlement (a pioneer settlement of people of color) who hoped that Douglass could raise their political prospects in Hamilton County. 

Celeste Williams: The most significant of (Douglass’) visits was in 1843, just a few years after he had escaped slavery, when he accompanied abolitionists on an anti-slavery speaking tour, which took them to Pendleton, Indiana. There, they were confronted by a violent mob, who beat them in order to stop them from speaking. Douglass was knocked unconscious. He then returned in 1880, which is the subject of my play.

What can people learn from Douglass’ life in terms of current events?

Hughes: Frederick Douglass’ thoughts and words resonate today. Conner Prairie has joined in the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI) project, One Million Abolitionists, with the goal of getting free copies of their special bicentennial edition of Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,” into the hands of one million youth across the US. We hope his words will inspire youth to do and be more than they might think they can.

Williams: I would urge anyone to read any of Frederick Douglass’ writings. You would be amazed at how much his words resonate when it comes to the issues of today — especially violence against people of color and discrimination.

What conversations should take place today and why?

Hughes: At the heart of our project is the collaboration between Asante Children’s Theatre and Conner Prairie, which we call Giving Voice: African-American’s Presence in Indiana’s History. Our collaboration brings together a diverse community, two organizations that may seem to have little in common … And yet we have found common purpose in uncovering and sharing stories of achievement and resilience in the face of adversity. In doing so, we have encouraged our audiences to talk about race and race relations, in both the contemporary and historic context. 

Keesha Dixon: Conversations about race, during a time when racism and other -isms are dividing our communities are the very exchanges that should be taking place. Yes, they are difficult but those dialogues are likewise essential if we, as a “democratic” nation, intend to move beyond the hurtful disrespect that is shelled out daily. Conner Prairie and Asante Children’s Theatre, through their collaborative use of performing arts, have created a space where ignorance has no place and where enlightenment and empowerment may be tended. 

 How impactful is it to have Kenneth B. Morris Jr. attend Conner Prairie’s celebration?

 Hughes: We’re excited that Ken Morris will be here to share his story and the work of his family’s initiatives, to honor Douglass’s bicentennial year and to see our play. We hope his presence will, in addition to honoring his forbearer and the work of FDFI, raise awareness of the collaboration between Asante Children’s Theatre and Conner Prairie, and our production of “More Light: Douglass Returns” by Celeste Williams.

Williams: The participation of Mr. Morris is just amazing. The fact that he is carrying on the legacies of these two important men of history — Douglass and Booker T. Washington — is notable in itself, but the fact that he was willing to promote his foundation’s message against human trafficking in conjunction with the play.

Celebrate a life well lived

Conner Prairie will host several events to commemorate the life and legacy of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

A public event at Noblesville Square will pay tribute to Douglass’ return to the Roberts Settlement and will include a scene from the play “More Light: Douglass Returns” 6-7:15 p.m. July 10 on the west steps of the Hamilton County Courthouse. The event is free.

Kenneth B. Morris Jr., the great-great-great grandson of Douglass and great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington, will discuss “One Million Abolitionists,” a project by the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative and give away bicentennial editions of Douglass’ autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.” A sneak preview of the play will also be featured 6:30-8 p.m. July 18 at Conner Prairie, 13400 Allisonville Road, Fishers. This event is free.

“More Light: Douglass Returns” runs July 12-22 in the Lilly Theater at Connie Prairie Welcome Center. 

7 p.m.  July 12

3 p.m. July 14

7 p.m. July 15

7 p.m. July 19

3 p.m. July 21

7 p.m. July 22

Activist: Douglass ca. 1884 with his second wife, Helen (right), and her sister. (Photo/National Park Service)

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