Frederick Douglass, the great enemy of slavery, was never out of character.
From the moment he stepped on the lawn of Stringellow Orchards in Hitchcock for a Juneteenth celebration, the man who looked and talked like Frederick Douglass never hinted at the possibility he might be anyone else.
Well, maybe one hint.
“The body my spirit occupies belongs to Michael E. Crutcher Sr.,” said the tall, powerfully built man who looked every bit like Frederick Douglass.
Crutcher, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army who now lives in Kentucky, stays in character from start to finish.
“I’m not an actor — more of a messenger,” he said.
Some people have suggested he’s a portal for Douglass’ spirit. The man who looks and talks like Frederick Douglass raised an eyebrow at that notion, but didn’t deny it.
Crutcher was one of three re-enactors celebrating Juneteenth at the home of Sam and Doris Collins on Saturday. Skip Critell, who portrayed President Abraham Lincoln, came from Boise, Idaho. Tammy Kingston, who played Harriet Tubman, lives down the road in Hitchcock.
Performing for the audience, this Frederick Douglass breathed fire against people who profess to love freedom but won’t agitate for it. He told of the day he confronted President Lincoln at the White House for failing to honor promises to African-American soldiers.
And he told of going and seeing his former master, after the war, to confront him on his deathbed. The old man had taken Frederick Douglass from his mother when he was an infant.
This Frederick Douglass brought the crowd to breath-holding quietness as he said: “The lesson, people, is forgiveness.”
And the second lesson was the value of education: “A man with no education is destined to live a life of slavery.”
Education is important, Mr. Douglass said.
Skip Critell makes no attempt to stay in character once he’s off the stage.
On this day, it was clear Mr. Lincoln, consulting a gold pocket watch, has to catch an afternoon flight to get back to Boise, Idaho. Critell balances the demands of performing while running a home health care business that caters largely to seniors.
Growing up just down the road from the Civil War battleground of Stones River in Tennessee, Critell couldn’t help but be interested in the Civil War. He began portraying Lincoln in 1999.
How do people act when they’re in the presence of Abraham Lincoln?
“The majority of them are very respectful,” he said.
Still, he’s been greeted by crackpots who ask him to autograph pennies. One woman asked for an autograph then lowered her top when he approached with a pen.
More than once, he’s also been greeted by racial slurs.
“I like to believe that it’s getting better,” he said. “And I think a lot of that has to do with education.”
That’s one reason why Critell, who has read books on Lincoln, studies his philosophy and speeches and interviewed the caretaker of Lincoln’s tomb, put on the top hat and frock coat at 49 events last year.
Education is important, Mr. Lincoln said.
Tammy Kingston, in the character of Harriet Tubman, described the horror of seeing her sisters sold away, never to be seen by the family again.
“I couldn’t do nothing,” she said, again and again, as each sister disappeared.
Reading Tubman’s account of that story is heartbreaking, but hearing another person speaking those words brought the tragedy home. The re-enactment makes that history real for the audience, Kingston said.
“What I like about her is that, after she escaped, she decided to go back to help others,” Kingston said. “She helped about 300 slaves get to freedom.”
Tubman risked her own life and freedom, as a conductor on the Underground Railroad and as a spy during the Civil War.
Kingston played the role on a hot day, dressed in mismatched clothes and carrying the supplies for her flight from slavery in a small bag. The bag included pepper — to foil the tracking hounds.
It’s a small detail that helps people understand what it must have been like to risk your life for freedom.
That education is important, Ms. Tubman said.
If there was a theme among the re-enactors celebrating Juneteenth on Saturday afternoon, it was on the importance of education. Understanding the past makes us better people. Making better people is an investment in a better society.
Next year will be the 150th anniversary of June 19,1865, the day Texas slaves finally got the official word they were finally free. It will be the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery in America.
Galveston County residents ought to make an effort to educate people that this event — this huge story in American history — happened right here.
When Mr. Lincoln packed his top hat and left Boise last week, he told people he was going to Texas for Juneteenth.
“June what?” they asked.
Mr. Lincoln recognized an opportunity for education.