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Actor brings historic Black writer, abolitionist from Kentucky to life for Mayfield students

Actor Virgil Covington Jr. speaks as William Wells Brown in front of Mayfield Independent Schools students.
Liam Niemeyer
Actor Virgil Covington Jr. speaks as William Wells Brown in front of Mayfield Independent Schools students.

Leaning on a wooden cane, Virgil Covington Jr. stepped into the persona he’s crafted into his own over the past several years.

The 68 year-old’s voice boomed in the school auditorium. His long jacket and red ascot tie resembled a man who died more than a century ago, a prominent figure of Black history in Kentucky that most of the Mayfield High School students before him were unfamiliar with.

“I am credited as being the first negro American to publish a novel,” Covington Jr. said to the students in character. “I went around lecturing about the evils of slavery because we wanted it abolished. So I became an abolitionist.”

William Wells Brown was born into slavery in Kentucky in the early 19th century, eventually escaping his enslavement by slipping away from a steamboat docked in Cincinnati, Ohio. He would go on later that century to be known as the first African American to publish a novel, the first African American published playwright and also become a prominent abolitionist and historian during his time.

The Kentucky Chautauqua program through the nonprofit Kentucky Humanities has actors and actresses bring to life historical figures from Kentucky through live performances in character, providing an up-close experience to history for community members and schools. Grant funding from the Carson-Mrye Charitable Foundation is currently providing free Kentucky Chautauqua performances to all classrooms in the Purchase region.

For Covington, that means taking his audiences through the brutal experiences of slavery that Brown faced. At one point during the performance, Covington’s voice filled with emotion, screaming as he recounted Brown’s mother being whipped by a slave overseer in Missouri.

“I heard every crack of that whip against my mother’s back. Ten slashes,” he said in character. “They kept on whipping.”

This is one of a handful of public performances for Covington since 2020 because of the pandemic, and the Scott County-based actor – who was a public schools educator for decades in central Kentucky – sees the performances as Brown an opportunity to teach his audiences.

Some of the Mayfield High School students, a part of the school’s cultural diversity club who brought in Covington this week as a part of Black History Month programming, were unfamiliar with terms such as “abolitionist,” “chattel slavery” or “soul driver.”

“Chattel slavery needs to be understood for what it was and how we were treated. And so that's the history. That's our history,” Covington said.

During a Q&A session after his performance, there were also moments where Covington brought the history and context of Brown’s story into modern day, touching on what he sees as its relevance to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“What the movement of Black lives is saying, that we're no longer property. We're human. Our lives matter. There was never a question of whether or not white lives matter,” the actor said. “A white man, a white woman, a white boy, a white girl was never treated as property.”

The actor also has concerns for current legislation in the Kentucky General Assembly targeting discussions of race in classrooms. One bill introduced by two Republican state lawmakers would make it illegal to teach about institutional racism, and another bill would mandate how teachers talk about race and U.S. history in the classroom.

In an interview after his performance, Covington said Mayfield Independent Schools and the teacher who brought him to perform could theoretically face fines in the thousands of dollars under some of the proposed legislation because “someone felt uncomfortable.”

“I'm not saying you were slave master, but I don't want you to repeat the same mistakes that have happened in the past,” he said. “And the problem is, you know, it seems like we're going backwards and not forward.”

Niaz Khadem, a English Language Learner teacher at the school district, said the high school’s cultural diveristy club brought in Covington to portray Brown because the historical figure was a “part of our story.”

“This is a man of letters. The first published [African American] novelist and playwright,” Khadem said. “I was just so happy that we were able to bring him to Mayfield.”

Khadem said other activities for the club during Black History Month include a trip to the Hotel Metropolitan and the National Quilt Museum in Paducah.

A representative from Kentucky Humanities said grant funding is still available to provide free Kentucky Chautauqua performances to classrooms in the Purchase region.

The portrayals from actors and actresses include politician Henry Clay, baseball player “Pee Wee” Reese and Col. Charles Young, who was the third African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point.

"Liam Niemeyer is a reporter for the Ohio Valley Resource covering agriculture and infrastructure in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia and also serves Assistant News Director at WKMS. He has reported for public radio stations across the country from Appalachia to Alaska, most recently as a reporter for WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio. He is a recent alumnus of Ohio University and enjoys playing tenor saxophone in various jazz groups."
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