'From Slave to Mr. Brown' Living History Tells Pre-Civil War Success Story

Oct 18, 2010, 07:00 ET from Mount Gulian Historic Site

BEACON, N.Y., Oct. 18 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- When James F. Brown ran away from his Baltimore owners in 1828, he sent them a letter outlining the reasons why.

"No man of integrity can provide for his family within the limitations of slavery," he wrote. It was an indication of all he was to achieve during a long life that included the Civil War.

Now Brown, as interpreted by actor Michael Monasterial, returns regularly to Mount Gulian, the Dutch colonial homestead where he worked for 40 years. The Hudson Valley historic site is presenting From Slave to Mr. Brown, living history afternoons featuring Brown and his employer Mary Anna Verplanck, portrayed by Jean Moss, as they were in 1848.

The pair interacts with visitors as they are welcomed to the estate as guests, or interviewed for farm and household positions by Brown. In the process, much is revealed about life in the 19th century and Brown's character and standing in the community.

"It's fabulous," Pat Gallie of Beacon said after one of the programs. "I totally believed he [Monasterial] was in the time."

William Puswald, 14, of Beacon, found it surprising that an African American in mid-19th century America  "could be so successful in the North."

"Brown kept diaries for 40 years," Mount Gulian Historic Site Executive Director Elaine Hayes explained.  "That's how we know that he returned to Baltimore to purchase his wife's freedom, bought his own home in Beacon and as a result of owning property, was able to vote in local and national elections."

Brown, serving at a Verplanck dinner party, was almost returned to slavery when one of the guests recognized him as a runaway. The Verplanck family purchased his freedom and he decided to work for them for the rest of his life, achieving regional respect as a horticulturist, and ultimately serving as the estate's personnel manager.

During the course of his life, Brown became a pillar of Beacon's African American community, raising funds for a cemetery and attending churches throughout the area as a fan of "good preaching and fine singing."  

"Despite Miss Verplanck's wealth and privilege, she was never considered a full citizen of this country. She was never able to vote as James did," Hayes noted.

Monasterial, who has appeared on stage and television, believes he shares common ground with Brown. "I'm a carpenter doing physical labor. You look at life differently when you work like that. Brown would feel the aches and pains of a life of working hard, and he'd know the satisfaction of doing a good job."

Dr. Myra B. Young Armstead, author and professor of urban and African American history at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, conducted research on Brown, Verplanck and the times. Scripts were developed in 2008, casting calls went out in June and rehearsals and costuming began in September.

Living history programs are slated for Sundays, Oct. 24, Nov. 7 and Feb. 20, and Saturday, Feb. 5. Special Candlelight Tours of the house will feature James and Mary Anna welcoming guests as if they were arriving for a holiday gathering in 1848. The tours will be conducted between 4 and 6 p.m. on Sundays, Dec. 12 and 19.

"If these performances are popular, we will have a regular schedule of From Slave to Mr. Brown programs from April through October next year," Hayes promised.

Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and $4 for young people ages 6 through 18. Advance reservations are required for groups. For more information call 845 831-8172 or visit www.MountGulian.org .

SOURCE Mount Gulian Historic Site