This August will mark 404 years since the first 20 enslaved Africans arrived on the shores of Point Comfort, Virginia, on Aug. 20, 1619.
1619: The Journey of a People, The Musical celebrates the harrowing yet empowering journey African Americans made from slavery to the Reconstruction Era to the Great Migration to today.
In honor of Juneteenth, the musical will be performed in Ingraham Park, at Leonard Place and Asbury Avenue behind the Morton Civic Center, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, June 17, as part of the city’s holiday celebrations. The musical will be performed by 3rd Dimension Performance Group and presented in partnership with Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, Evanston Public Library and Evanston Township High School. The musical had a special presentation for faculty and students at ETHS on May 19.
The musical uses hip hop, jazz, blues and spoken word to ask questions many people are still seeking explanations for today. One of the questions repeated throughout the play is: How can the U.S. redress centuries of harm against African Americans?
Ted Williams, 1619 playwright, was appointed by Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker to the Illinois African Descent-Citizens Reparations Commission in January. The Illinois Department of Central Management Services announced the creation of the commission, part of the Economic Opportunity Bill, in February. To date Illinois and California are the only states with statewide reparations commissions.
“I am honored to be coming to Evanston, because it is a leader in the reparations struggle,” Williams said. “I am convinced that if we don’t do anything in a drastic, systemic, governmental fashion to deal with inequality, it’s going to continue.”
A scene in the musical explains that right after the Civil War, African Americans were promised reparations: 40 acres and a mule. But that promise was never fulfilled. So after being released from slavery, many African Americans started with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Katrina, a character in 1619, echoes Williams’ perspective on the urgency of redress.
“If you don’t repair what’s broken, of course, it’s going to last,” says Katrina, during 1619.
Evanston’s reparations program is focused on the harm the city government inflicted on Black residents. The Illinois Reparations Commission is focused on measuring the impact slavery has had on African Americans in Illinois today to create solutions to ensure equity.
To Williams, knowledge is power. “If we don’t get to the place where people know about these issues, then how can we possibly think that they will put forward public policy?” he said.
Williams considers 1619 to be a teaching tool. The musical is a two-hour opportunity to learn U.S. history, including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s time in Chicago, that is often untold.
“A lot of people think that these diversity questions are for people of color, but, to me, I think people who are not of color are done a major disservice if they don’t understand U.S. history,” he said. “They are done a major disservice if they don’t see diversity in positions of power, because it reinforces an unrealistic understanding of how the world works.”