Megan Burnett, assistant professor of theatre and director of Bellarmine’s Theatre Program, premiered her new play, Conversations with a Suffragette, this summer at the Tahlequah (Okla.) Community Playhouse. The one-woman show brings to life Mattie Griffith Browne, a 19th century Kentucky abolitionist and suffragist whose name has largely been forgotten. We asked Ms. Burnett what inspired her to tell Mattie’s story.
I am a feminist and have long been interested in how women from our country’s past have helped to shape the present life we have. Who were they? What were their stories? Why did they choose to sacrifice their health, wealth, and family for their cause? I’ve chosen to explore their lives through theatre. I was a co-founder, board president, actor, director and producer for the Pleiades Theatre Company, a professional women’s theatre company based in Louisville from 1995-2005. We produced plays by and about women using women artists to bring these stories to life on stage.
Since 2004 I have been performing the one-woman play, Shame the Devil! An Audience with Fanny Kemble by Anne Ludlum. Fanny Kemble was a famous 19th century actress from London who married an American slave owner, Pierce Butler. She chronicled her life on his plantation in Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. This book was among the first in America to describe in honest, and graphic detail, how slaves were treated on Southern plantations.
The years I spent performing this play and researching the life of Fanny Kemble made me curious about researching women from Kentucky who might have made similar choices. I began my research on Google, looking for a woman in the 19th century from Kentucky who was also an artist or writer and found Mattie Griffith Browne. Dr. Joe Lockard had recently republished her book, Autobiography of a Female Slave, with an intriguing afterword about her life.
I obtained a copy of her book and was fascinated by the story, the amount of detail describing the life of slaves in Kentucky, and the intellectual discourse Griffith invested in her characters, both black and white. Little was known about Griffith’s life, so I began to do my own research about her, contacting the Daviess County Library, the Filson Club, librarians at the Louisville Free Public Library, and, of course, searching the internet. Bit by bit I pieced together her life story and developed a talk about her that I now give for the Kentucky Humanities Council.
It is at this point that the Owensboro Museum of Science and History comes into the picture. In 2014 they had a Civil War installment in the museum in which they highlighted Harriett Beecher Stowe’s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because the character of Uncle Tom was based on the life of the former slave Josiah Henson who was from Owensboro. They had nothing about Mattie Griffith’s book in the artifacts shown.
I asked Kathy Olson, chief executive officer of the museum, if I might give my talk about Mattie Griffith at the museum, and she agreed. After learning about her through my presentation, Ms. Olson decided to include Mattie Griffith Browne in “Remember the Women—Daviess County Celebrates 200 Years,” an event held in August 2015. These portraits will remain as part of their permanent exhibit. I gave another talk about Mattie during this event in August 2015. During this visit to Owensboro, I met Isaac Settles, a high school intern, who had uncovered several documents in the basement of the county courthouse that were directly related to Mattie and Catharine Griffith. The documents showed how money was spent on the girls as they grew up in Owensboro, and how money was spent for the care of the slaves the girls had inherited from their parents. This is an invaluable new source of information about Mattie’s life as a child and young woman, previously only referred to in letters from her and about her.
Once I had these documents I began writing plays about Mattie Griffith Browne. I wrote two one-act plays about her that were workshopped in 2015 by actors, directors and playwrights from Tahlequah Community Playhouse in Oklahoma. Receiving invaluable feedback from this group of actors led me to writing a new one-woman play that I could perform. The text in this article is taken from that play.
The final push for choosing how to anchor the story and to finish the play came from an opportunity to perform this work at the Harriett Beecher Stowe Society Annual Conference in Spokane, Wash., at Whitworth University in June 2016. I made additional edits and improvements after this performance and then presented it for the Tahlequah Community Playhouse in July 2016.
Mattie Griffith Browne continued to reinvent herself, regardless of the thoughts and pressures of others or society. She published works of fiction to bring the plight of slaves into public view. She petitioned politicians to end slavery. She sought the right to vote for women as well as all freed slaves. She influenced other men and women to work to end slavery. She inspired respect from men and women working in the abolitionist and suffragist movements with her moral and patriotic convictions. Mattie Griffith Browne was a true agent of social change, and she is someone I have come to admire.
Conversations: An Excerpt
Setting: Parlor of the home of a local woman hosting a woman’s rights political and fundraising meeting. The date is 1870, five years after President Lincoln’s assassination, and nearly four years since MGB’s marriage to Albert Gallatin Browne, Jr. It is one year after MGB became a vice president of the first radical feminist organization, National Woman Suffrage Association. She is seeking to persuade women and men to become volunteers and sign a petition for the right to vote for women.
Good evening. This matter is urgent and we need your help, as suffragists and former abolitionists. And we only have a few months to take action. As an officer of the National Woman Suffrage Association, along with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton our leaders, we feel it is imperative that the 15th Amendment only be ratified if it allows all citizens to vote— women and freed men and women. The 15th Amendment reads: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. However, as you are most certainly and painfully aware, women are not considered citizens. We are still considered property, like cattle or horses, or, yes, even slaves: property to be bought and sold and treated as the owner sees fit. Just five years ago, in 1865, the 13th Amendment freed all slaves in our country, and it outlawed any new states from joining the union as slave states. And yet, women are still not considered free and equal citizens. I am here today to appeal to you to sign this petition before the 15th Amendment is ratified demanding that it clearly include women in its decree. (Put petition on table.)
My dear friend, Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe, asked that I come especially to address your chapter of suffragists as she knew you have been most supportive of our abolitionist work in the past. Thank you for your kind welcome. I see some of you are reading my book. And now I will address what some might describe as my ‘infamy’. (Pick up book.) I am the author of this book: I am Mattie Griffith. I wrote Autobiography of a Female Slave in 1857 not to try to hoodwink people into thinking I was a former slave, no, but to help raise the funds I needed to free the slaves I inherited from my parents. Yes, I know from birth what it means to own another human being. I know what it means to see men and women, no different from me, save “Circumstance, Accident and Condition” having “cast my life among them,” what it means to see men and women bought and sold and treated worse than animals. I knew it was wrong from my earliest childhood memories, and did all in my power to free the slaves I had inherited from my parents.
I am proud to be from the great Commonwealth of Kentucky with its beautiful landscapes and people, with the exception of its embrace of slavery, and although Kentucky law did not expressly bar a freed slave from residing in the state, I feared that once I freed these men and women, rogue slave traders would capture them and sell them back into slavery. To prevent this I needed to purchase manumission bonds to free them and to provide them with the means to leave Kentucky and start new lives in a free state. Several of my dear friends and colleagues, acquainted with my cause, aided me in collecting money to pay for the purchase of six manumission bonds. Thanks to these funds and those raised from the sale of my book, I was able to return to Owensboro just one short year after having published Autobiography of a Female Slave.
We have been free from the tyranny of slavery for several years now. Since the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865, no more states have joined the union as slave states. We are not, however, free from the continued prejudice, bigotry, and hatred expressed so often against these freed men and women. Nor are we free to express our opinions in the ballot box. We, women, white women, and freed men and women, still do not have the right to vote. It is women like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lydia Maria Child, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and men like William Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Senator Charles Sumner, John Brown, and women and men like you who continue to work toward a world free of slavery, a world free of hatred, and a world in which we are free to vote our conscience. We long for the time when all women and men, white and black, may vote, may own property, may earn their own money. We are striving for these very things right now. As one of 12 vice presidents of the National Woman Suffrage Association, I urge you to sign this petition, to volunteer your time, to write letters, to pass out fliers, and to stand with us in our struggle for true freedom in this great nation of ours.
Listen to another clip from Burnett’s performance below.
Who was Mattie Griffith Browne?
Martha “Mattie” Griffith was born in the early 19th century in Louisville and raised on a slave-owning plantation near Owensboro, which opened her eyes to the horrors of slavery at a very young age. After she and her sister Catharine Griffith Slattery moved to Philadelphia to live with an aunt, she became involved in the abolitionist movement, eventually writing The Autobiography of a Female Slave, the story of “Ann,” a former slave, in an effort to raise money to free the slaves she and her sister had inherited. Abolitionists including Lydia Maria Child, Harriett Beecher Stowe, and members of the American Anti-Slavery Society helped her in this effort with donations.
Griffith combined her passion to stop slavery with her belief in the rights of women to vote in this country. She became an officer of the American Equal Rights Association as well as the Women’s Loyal National League, which was led by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucy Stone. She did not leave her activism behind when she married Albert Gallatin Browne, Jr. She helped to create the first radical feminist organization, the National Woman Suffrage Association in 1869, and was elected one of its 12 vice presidents. She died in 1906.