Let Freedom Sing: Of 19th Century Americans

An Historical Novel Or Could It Be A Musical?

by Vivian B. Kline

Let Freedom Sing: Of 19th Century Americans

Let Freedom Sing: Of 19th Century Americans

An Historical Novel Or Could It Be A Musical?

by Vivian B. Kline

Published Feb 27, 2009
256 Pages
Genre: FICTION / Historical


Book Details

or Could It Be A Musical?

When a class in Cincinnati, Ohio, hopes to make a musical about nineteenth century Americans, they begin by reading autobiographies from the period. They choose a group of young black ex-slave singers, and follow their progress as they move from Tennessee to New York, singing in churches to raise money for their school, destined to become Fisk University. Their white chaperone Susannah becomes the heroine of the journey, as she meets a cast of characters which include Nicholas Longworth, Horace Greeley,P. T. Barnum, Mary Todd Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Robert Duncanson, Susan B. Anthony, Vicky Woodhull and many others. Letters between Susannah and her good friend, Maria Longworth, in Cincinnati, along with entries from the diary of Ella, the black pianist accompanying the singers, provide a great picture of the 1860s and 70s. The Cincinnati students have done a lot of homework. But will it make a musical?


Book Excerpt

Nick was panting as he finished climbing the many stairs and entered the gallery. He knew Duncanson’s paintings, The Drunkard’s Plight, and another titled Maggie, from earlier visits. Nick had admired the sketches of William and Freeman Cary, father and son, last time, but now two new landscapes, A Blue Hole, Flood Water, Little Miami River, and the View of Cincinnati, were prominently displayed. As Nick entered the room he saw his friend Bellamy Storer, Sr. already looking at the new paintings. Like Nick, Bellamy was a lawyer. He had gone to Bowdoin College at thirteen and studied law with Daniel Webster in Boston before coming to Cincinnati. In the 1830s, he had been a member of Congress. Later, he would become a judge of the Superior Court and enter law practice with his son. But today the son, Bellamy Jr., was only four years old, and the future judge turned to see Nick standing near him. Smiling, Bellamy said to the older man, “So now your granddaughter is five years old, I hear!”Nick smiled. “How did you know?”

“Bellamy Jr. and your little Maria are to celebrate the event together. They are certainly love playmates! Someday,” he added, “maybe they’ll make it permanent.”

“I won’t be around for that,” said Old Nick, “but let’s drink to it.” He called to J. P., as he was often called, and J. P. Ball came out of the back room accompanied by Robert Duncanson.“I’ve brought my latest prize wine to celebrate the birthday of my granddaughter and your fine new painting, Robert,” said Nick, though in truth he’d hardly had a chance to make a judgment about it. Nicholas now examined the new work. It WAS original — the view of the houses as seen from across the river even showed where the smoke from a soap factory met the sky — but he really preferred the more romantic picture of the Little Miami River.“I like the way the tones are lighter at the horizon. You’ve hit the golden moment of natural beauty, Robert. I’m glad you’re a romantic.

Nick began to pour the wine into the glasses that Mr. Ball kept ready for just such an occasion.“It looks to me as if your business is thriving, J. P.,” he said to his host. “I’m glad that some of the other colored men in this city are so successful, too,” he continued as an afterthought. “That fellow with the large cooperage establishment in the East End makes barrels for the packers, and Knight and Bell are doing well as contractors, I hear.“I heard Robert Harlan made considerable money buying and selling some race horses,” said Storer.

Nick continued this train of thought: “There’s A. V. Thompson’s tailors on Broadway, too." Ball and Duncanson were both embarrassed and pleased by this enthusiasm about members of their race.

“Samuel Wilcox, who owes his success to his position as a steward on the river, has accumulated a lot of property from his successful grocery business, I hear,” added Storer.“Yes, but not all are doing well. Did you hear about Henry Boyd? They say the corded bed plant was burned down deliberately by those jealous of his success.“Not everyone wants us to succeed,” agreed Ball.“How’s the wine business?” Bellamy Storer asked Nick politely. He knew Nick loved to talk about it.

“I have about one hundred and fifteen acres in grapes. I am now raising new seedlings both for wine and for the table from our best native grapes and may cross them with foreign ones. Within the past few years, I have grafted more than one hundred and twenty different kinds of native grapes, and they generally bear the first year.”

A timid knock interrupted the sage of wine making, and Ball went to open the door. There stood a tall black man, a woman, and, in her arms, a young child. The two adults looked fearful, but the child slept peacefully. With only a little encouragement from the generous Nick, the group soon learned the newcomers’ story.“My name is Ezra Sheppard,” said the man, and he looked down at the floor in his shyness. “I need help,” he added simply. “When I was a slave in Nashville, I had hired myself out on my own time in order to earn enough to buy my freedom. I got it when I paid one thousand dollars. My wife was owned by a family living in Mississippi and soon after our baby, Ella, was born, they were taken back to that state.” At the mention of her name, Ella seemed to respond with a cry, and the woman took her into a darkened corner to soothe her. “My wife was worked so hard that the baby got little attention and nearly died,” the man continued, emitting loud breaths as if remembering those hard times. “I heard about it and went to Mississippi where I bought the babe for three hundred fifty dollars. I got her home to Nashville. I tried to buy my wife, but her master refused to sell her.” He paused as he remembered. “So, I have a second wife,” and he smiled toward the shadow where the woman and child had settled in. “I bought HER freedom for one thousand and three hundred dollars, earning the money by running a livery stable,” he added proudly. “They would not give me free papers without going to a free state such as Ohio, but before I could do this, I ran into business difficulties. My wife IS legally my property, but in Nashville that means they could seize her and sell her along with my horses to cover my debts.”The listeners looked horrified at the idea. “A friend said they were coming tomorrow to get her,” he continued, “so without waiting, I hurried us to an out-of-the-way railway station in the woods, and we boarded the midnight train bound here for Cincinnati. We’ve left our debts and our property behind us now . . . everything. My friend who had warned me also gave me Mr. Ball’s name and address, and that is how we have come to this place.” Again, he hung his head in embarrassment.

When Ezra Sheppard finished his account, all tried to think about how to help them. As Robert Duncanson thought, his eyes seemed drawn to the portraits he had recently sketched of the Carys, father and son, who lived near his home outside of Cincinnati.“I think I can help you, Mr Sheppard,” he said. Before he could explain further, a stocky man flung the door open. In his forties, clean-shaven, with a pugnacious nose and a determined chin, his bold stance frightened the Sheppard family, who stepped back into the darkened corner of the gallery and became spectators to the following scene.

“I am P.T. Barnum,” said the newcomer, as his eyes looked out from beneath heavy brows to take in the scene. One might have mistaken him for a statesman, but those who knew him better, knew his mastery was in showmanship and promotion. Nicholas, in fact, had met him before and recognized him. So he introduced himself and said, “Welcome, Mr. Barnum. We are just drinking some of my juice of the Catawba grape. Will you join us?” “To be sure, I have in times past drunk liquor, but I have generally abstained from intoxicating beverages, and for more than twenty years past, I am glad to say, I have been a strict teetotaler." Seeing that the others looked astonished at this declaration, he quickly added, “But I will gladly join your group for some conversation.” After introductions all around, Nick explained that Mr. Barnum was well known in the East as a successful promoter, and pleasantly gave him a chance to tell the group something about himself.“When I was five years of age, I began to accumulate pennies and four pences. When I was six, my capital amounted to a sum sufficient to exchange for a silver dollar, the possession of which made me feel far richer and more independent than I ever have since felt in the world. Nor did my dollar long remain alone. As I grew older, I earned ten cents a day riding the horse that led the ox team in plowing. On holidays, instead of spending money, I earned it. I was a peddler of molasses, candy, gingerbread cookies and cherry rum, and I generally found myself a dollar or two richer at the end of the trade. By the time I was twelve, besides having other property, I was the owner of a sheep and a calf, and should have become a small Croesus had not my father required me to purchase my own clothing, which somewhat reduced my little store.” Nick listened with amusement to this self-made man, though he, too was one. As a young lawyer he had taken payment for his work in land rather than in cash. His holdings had increased rapidly until now, as an elder statesman, he had the dubious distinction of paying seventeen thousand dollars a year in property taxes; nationally, only William Astor paid more.


About the Author

Vivian B. Kline

Vivian B. Kline, a widow, mother of three, and grandmother of six, moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in midlife. She has been a professional artist-craftsman, an organizer, and a writer of three books. When chapter two of this current work won a prize in a competition at Sinclair College, she was encouraged to expand and complete this book. Described once as a “self-starter,” she has enjoyed the variety of her interests and hopes to continue beyond her eighty-three years.