by Lawrence H. Geller
An historic meeting between a president and a former slave at the White House sets the scene for exploration of one of the most turbulent periods in our nation’s history. “Mr. President, I’m Frederick Douglass,” a play authored by Glenside resident Georgina Bard, 60, and Rick Hadley, 59, of Huntingdon Valley, debuted last spring and will be performed at venues throughout the area over the next two months.
“We knew we had a special moment in history about which most Americans are unaware, and should know more,” said Bard, of the August 1863 meeting between President Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
After attending a reading on the life of Douglass in 2009, Bard says she “was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the man, an escaped slave who teaches himself to read and write, starts his own newspaper and becomes one of the leading abolitionists of the 19th century.”
Inspired, Bard said she gathered an immense amount of research material. “When I came upon the meeting between the two, that was the deciding moment for me. And I started from there.”
The writing went well for awhile “until I found some problems I was having with the play’s structure, and I called upon Richard, who was very helpful.”
Hadley, a social worker by training, is a history buff who was raised in Virginia and West Virginia. “I could see that Georgina had something here right away. The fact that the meeting was held almost exactly 100 before Dr. King’s March on Washington in 1963 was exciting in and of itself.”
“The war had not been going well for the North,” said Hadley, “and Lincoln was losing support from the public and the conservative wing of his Republican party. This did not bode well for the president’s re-election campaign coming up in 1864.”
Lincoln needed Douglass’ support to continue recruiting Negroes into the army. For his part, Douglass wanted to address the unequal treatment colored soldiers were receiving as compared to whites, regarding pay and promotion.
“These two giants of the 19th century both had their reasons for wanting to meet each other,” Bard said.
The play will be performed on Tuesday, March 18, 1 p.m., at the Chestnut Hill Enrichment Center, 8431 Germantown Ave. For more information, call 215-248-0180.
Lawrence H. Geller is an actor and freelance writer who portrays Abraham Lincoln in “Mr. President, I’m Frederick Douglass.”
* This article is reprinted, with permission, from the February issue of Milestones, a publication of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.