Longtime educator Virgil Covington was ready to become a character for the Kentucky Chautauqua, a program of single-performer shows associated with the Kentucky Humanities Council.
The only question was which one.
“My best friend said, ‘Why don’t you consider Williams Wells Brown?’” Covington said.
While Lexington has an elementary school named after the Montgomery County native Civil War-era author who fled slavery and taught himself to read, few Lexingtonians could correctly identify Brown’s importance in Kentucky history. (It doesn’t help that the state historical society of Missouri contends, incorrectly, that Brown was born in Montgomery County, Missouri.)
Covington intends to change that.
Brown was born into slavery in 1814 and escaped to Ohio in 1834. He moved to Boston, where he worked for abolitionist causes. He was a novelist (“Clotel,” published in 1853 in London, is considered the first novel written by a black person). Brown also worked in the genres of fiction, drama and travel writing.
The Kentucky Chautauqua is adding five new stories this year: Rose Leigh, better known as “Rosie the Riveter,” by Kelly Brengelman; Nancy Green, who portrayed the character “Aunt Jemima,” by Debra Faulk; folk icon Jean Ritchie, by Rachel Lee Rogers and jockey Roscoe Tarleton Goose, by Eddie Price.
Roscoe Goose may initially appear to be a less likely candidate for inclusion in Chautauqua, but his story is nonetheless fascinating.
Former Hancock County teacher and writer Eddie Price provides a variety of education programs for schools, but even he was stumped when someone familiar with his programming asked him to portray Abraham Lincoln.
Price stands 5 feet 4 inches.
Price knew that he had the right build to do a jockey presentation, and he considered Eddie Arcaro, who won the Derby five times. But Arcaro was born in Cincinnati.
Instead, he settled on the imposingly named Roscoe Tarleton Goose, a jockey born near Louisville who won the Kentucky Derby in 1913 riding the colt Donerail. The odds: 91-1.
Goose, nicknamed “The Golden Goose,” later became a trainer and owner and millionaire.
“His story just reached out and grabbed me,” Price said.
Price bought riding silks, did research and then auditioned for Chautauqua, which did not have a jockey in its lineup.
The Roscoe Goose story is literally rags to riches, Kentucky-style: “As a child he had to swipe coal off of passing coal wagons,” Price said. “… He was a jockey, but he died a millionaire.”
For Covington, Brown’s story of escaping slavery at the age of 20 was particularly dramatic.
First, he had to overcome being born a slave: “In my presentation I go through, we’re just like livestock, like cattle, like horses,” Covington said.
Brown would write his first narrative after he escaped slavery and go on the anti-slavery lecture series circuit as an abolitionist. He shed his slave name, Sandy, and became the William he had always wanted to be. The “Wells Brown” part, Covington said, came from the name of a post-slavery mentor.
Covington, who was once principal at Winburn Middle School in Lexington and an interim school principal in his current home of Georgetown, said that as a substitute teacher he has had the chance to try out his Brown presentation on various student groups. He has also tried it out at church.
“I don’t have a definite script,” Covington said. “I want to become him and just talk.”
The inclusion of Nancy Green, the given name of “Aunt Jemima” portrayed by Debra Faulk is a reminder of a racist era in American history and in particular the way that products were pitched to appeal to false memories of a benevolent “Old South.”
Nancy Green, born in Montgomery County, became the first spokeswoman for the “Aunt Jemima” instant pancake mix. She grew famous as a spokesmodel from 1890 until 1923.
A 2014 lawsuit said that the women employed to promote the Aunt Jemima brand said that the women and their descendents deserve $2 billion and a share of future revenue from sales. The suit was dismissed in 2015.
“Aunt Jemima has become known as one of the most exploited and abused women in American history,” said D.W. Hunter, one of Harrington’s great-grandsons, in an interview with the Courier-Journal.
Kentucky Humanities Council associate director said that for the upcoming Chautauqua year, which begins in August, presenters playing 26 characters will be available.
Faulk will offer part of her Chautauqua presentation at a race relations community discussion to be held in September at the Lyric Theatre. The event is sponsored by the Kentucky Humanities Council and funded the the National Council on the Humanities.
Faulk, a professional stand-up comic who moved back to Lexington to care for her aging father, said that it is important for her to play the part of the woman who first portrayed Aunt Jemima, not as “that messy minstrel character,” but from a position of strength.
“I want to show that she had grace and strength and dignity, and that’s why I’m here,” Faulk said.
To request a performance
To request a Chautauqua performance, get your selected performer’s contact information from the Kentucky Humanities Council website. You must contact your performer before contacting the Kentucky Humanities Council.
Complete the booking request and return it to the Kentucky Humanities Council office, along with the booking fee, at least two weeks before your program.
Questions? Call the council at 859-257-5932 or email at Kyhumanities@kyhumanities.org