Days before Emancipation Day, on the top floor of a D.C. government office building with a view of the Capitol dome, Bobbie Coles is turning into someone else.
About a dozen people eat brown-bag sandwiches as she becomes “Hattie” — a slave she describes as a “nameless, faceless woman of the Civil War.” Hattie was stolen from her parents, she says. Then her 10 children, sold into slavery, were stolen from her.
Her monologue, offered in period dress and a breaking voice as she leans on a walker, isn’t designed to send audience members back to their desks with a spring in their step.
“My life has been one of hardship and toil,” she says.
“The only time I counts for anything is on the auction block,” she says.
“When I’m free, I’m going to choose my own name,” she says.
When she finishes, the only sound in the room is the rustle of old-fashioned dresses — a hallmark of the Female Re-Enactors of Distinction (FREED), six of whom are on hand for an event celebrating Emancipation Day, when slavery ended in the District of Columbia on April 16, 1862. The volunteer group performs at libraries, schools, museums and parades to bring the Civil War into the 21st century.
“I felt like I was being carried back into the past,” said Tondalaya Hamilton, of D.C.’s Department of Health Care Finance, who watched the group perform during a recent lunch hour. “I’m over there crying — trying not to.”
FREED, founded in 2005 in association with D.C.’s African American Civil War Museum, focuses on resurrecting characters from the middle of the 19th century often overlooked in textbooks: black women. The group came together after a number of like-minded women donned period dress at a museum event commemorating the establishment of the U.S. Bureau of Colored Troops during the Civil War.
Pat Tyson, a FREED co-founder, said the women drew so much attention at the time that they were “stopping traffic on the street.” She said many Americans have forgotten that black people were more than just Southern victims. As writers, political activists, doctors, nurses and soldiers, they helped bring victory to the North and advance the cause of civil rights in the decades beyond.
“All that they were used to from movies was African Americans working out in the fields in rags,” she said.
At FREED events, Tyson, a former secretary at the State Department, portrays Hallie Quinn Brown (1850-1949), the daughter of former slaves who became a schoolteacher, college professor and organizer who toured Europe, giving lectures about African American life. She even appeared before Queen Victoria.
Though Brown isn’t a household name like Harriet Tubman, portraying her — as Tyson does in a full-length, black cotton button-down dress trimmed in white and lace gloves — brings an overlooked woman alive for a modern audience.
“Now everything is visual. The attention span of students is very short today,” Tyson said. “They don’t have the discipline they used to have.”
Catherine Ajenifuja has been performing with FREED for about a year. A diarist who home-schooled her children, she portrays Charlotte Forten Grimke (1837-1914), an abolitionist from Philadelphia whose diaries, kept from 1852 to 1862, chronicle the decade before the Civil War began.
As bleak as race relations sometimes seem, Ajenifuja said, Americans should take heart — they were much worse.
“Mankind is constantly in conflict,” she said. “Part of healing is telling.”
Frank Smith, a former D.C. councilman and founding director of the African American Civil War Museum, said the links FREED builds with the past are more important than ever.
“African American history is pretty much lost,” he said. “For many years, the Confederacy owned the narrative . . . in the last 15 or so years, we’ve been trying to turn that around.”
As the saying goes, the past isn’t dead — it’s not even past.
After her performance, Coles, born in Detroit and raised partly in Birmingham, Ala., recalled getting a dressing down from a relative when she tried to use a “whites-only” water fountain at about 5 years old. A Northerner by birth thrust into the Jim Crow South, she was unfamiliar with her new city’s peculiar customs.
“Slavery was very complicated,” she said. “It defined what the country was and still to this day defines what the country is. It’s important for people to understand their history.”
Though fellow members of FREED portray specific individuals, Coles, a retired retail merchandiser and community organizer, said she was moved not by one historical figure, but by lending a voice to the forgotten faces peering from old museum photographs.
“These faces of these enslaved people . . . it was like they were speaking to me,” she said. “I just felt compelled to create Hattie.”