In my role as executive director of the Juneteenth Festival, I recently found myself with my preteen nephew driving to Courtland, VA to see the Rebecca Vaughan House, the last home where victims were killed during the 1831 Nat Turner Insurrection. Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery in America. It started in Texas in 1865 when slaves learned that President Lincoln was dead but had won the war. I can give this speech in my sleep after 10 years at the helm of a non-profit I started upon my return home to a place that at age 18 I swore, I would never live again. But too many years as a playwright in Los Angeles, a child and a divorce took care of that youthful oath. Humbled, I returned to the South as an adult child and worse, a writer and a Unitarian. In my family of doctors and teachers, I am an anomaly. I own nothing, but often enough I’ll receive a roundtrip plane ticket and a per diem to attend a production of a play that I’ve written. No one thinks I’ve lived up to my potential despite awards, commissions and a request by the Huntington Library to house my writings alongside the likes of Charles Dickens. I am regularly quoted in the local paper in my role as a school board member. The centerpiece of this year’s Juneteenth Festival was a slave auction. Such reenactments help the community look at our difficult past without shame or blame. Growing up here was an oppressive ordeal with its strong Rebel pride. Through the Festival and the writing of several short plays, I’ve been responsible for leading the charge for this Texas based holiday being observed in a region that remains unrecognized as a major stop on the Underground Railroad. Hampton Roads is also where in 1619 the first Africans joined the Jamestown colony as indentured servants and it here where Nat Turner carved out a bloody page in history when he organized an insurrection that claimed the lives of 57 white men, women and children. Some call Nat Turner a madman. Others, a prophet. To the town of Courtland where the Rebecca Vaughan house has been moved, it is hoped that he will be a tourist attraction. My nephew and I turn into town and suddenly there it is – nothing more than a shack, an eerie beacon back to a violent past. My nephew is fascinated. Good. He is the demographic I want to reach. School kids. I take pictures. In 2007 Virginia will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the English arrival. I hope to produce a play featuring Nat Turner, Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman and other historical figures in this meadow alongside the Rebecca Vaughan House. There will be resistance, but this, I believe, is why I have come back home to do this work that has no name, no bragging rights and often no pay, but quite simply, the potential to make the world a better place.
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