Living History in My Hometown -- Writing for Milton's Civil War Days

It's true what they say -- you can't really go home again. But this spring I went back to my hometown of Milton, Wisconsin, to meet with the executive director of the Milton House Museum about a playwriting gig. Kari Klebba asked me to write a monologue about an escaped slave who lived in Milton for a short time during the 1860s. She had already contacted my friend Reggie Kellum about performing it as part of the museum's Civil War Days event. 

She didn't know I grew up in Milton, that I drove past the museum every day on my way to school. She also didn't know that my first job -- ever -- was as a tour guide at the museum, which was built by Milton's founder, Joseph Goodrich, and was a station on the underground railroad. 

So there I was, back in the three-story grout building, back in costume, helping Reggie get through the 10-minute monologue I wrote for him on a very warm day in May. He gave 15 amazing performances -- one every 20 minutes starting at 8am -- for 2,200 middle school and high school students from around the state. 

The story of Andrew Pratt is a good one, and I was happy to write about his journey from Arkansas to Minnesota in the 1860s. I was even happier to see Reggie inhabit the story so fully. 

 Reggie Kellum as former slave Andrew Pratt.

Reggie Kellum as former slave Andrew Pratt.

A summary of the event, written by Milton House Museum Executive Director Kari Klebba, appeared this week in the Milton Courier:

"The story of Milton is defined by ordinary men and women. It is the story a particular man of humble origins that has preoccupied us at the Milton House for the past year and a half. The experiences of Andrew Pratt, the only individual we know by name who came to the Milton House as a freedom seeker, have defined our organization’s narrative and focus.

As we have discovered through recently available documents, Andrew Pratt was born into slavery in Arkansas around 1835. His father was French, and very likely his owner. His story was like so many other of the nameless men and women serving in the house of bondage. Yet, this 'ordinary' man made a choice to free himself from his unnatural conditions.

That one decision – that one brave act – changed his world. He changed his own identity from slave to free man. His arrival in Milton forever changed our community’s story and our distinction as a city that didn’t just preach the ideals of abolitionism but acted on those principles as well.

It was thanks to the support of the Wisconsin Humanities Council and the talents of author Gwendolyn Rice and actor Reggie Kellum, we used those recently uncovered documents to bring Andrew Pratt back to life. We premiered this performance at our Civil War Living History Days for the nearly 3000 guests that visited our campus.

Between Rice’s masterful script and Kellum’s adept performance, Pratt’s story transported us all. We were able to look into Andrew’s eyes and feel his struggle. We feared for him as he tried to flee through Illinois. We heard his impassioned plea to be 'counted a man' regardless of the color of his skin."