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Interview with Elizabeth Lawson, September 24, 2017

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries

 

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00:00:00 - Introducing Elizabeth Lawson, who portrays Charlotte Dupuy

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Partial Transcript: All right, this is an unrehearsed oral history interview for the Living History Oral History Project.

Segment Synopsis: Lawson explains that she is portraying a first person presentation of Charlotte Dupuy who was a slave owned by Henry Clay. She explains that she comes from a long line of Kentucky storytellers, and this is a tradition that descended from her family and originated in slavery. She says she is not related to Dupuy. She says her motivation to return to Kentucky and take up an interest in storytelling and living history originates in her religious faith. She says she became interested in Dupuy while researching the Decatur House in Washington, D.C. and learning about Dupuy's lawsuit against her owner Henry Clay. She says overcoming the stigma of slavery in her family's past and a desire to share this history is a strong motivation. She says there is both beauty and pain in the truth of slavery for all members of the community.

Keywords: Artillery; Charlotte Dupuy; First person voice; Personas; Slavery; Storytelling; Third person voice

Subjects: Ashland (Lexington, Ky.); Clay, Henry; Clay, Henry, 1777-1852.; Clay, Lucretia Hart, 1781-1864; Decatur House (Washington, D.C.); Henry Clay Memorial Foundation (Lexington, Ky.); Slavery.

00:05:58 - Singing as part of her presentations

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Partial Transcript: Well, that's an interesting aspect of, uh, your, uh, presentation.

Segment Synopsis: Lawson talks about the songs she sings as part of her living history presentations. She favors "old negro spirituals" such as "Nobody Hear Me Praying" and traditional religious songs such as "Amazing Grace" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." She talks about an ensemble from Kentucky State University which covered the first song. She talks about how she mixes music with storytelling in her living history presentations as part of a family and cultural tradition. She sings "Amazing Grace" as a demonstration of her living history presentation.

Keywords: Amazing Grace (Song); Consolidated Baptist Church; Kentucky State University; Lullaby; Musical culture; Nobody Hear Me Praying (Song); Singing; Spiritual music; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (Song)

Subjects: Amazing grace (Hymn); Ashland (Lexington, Ky.); Clay, Henry; Clay, Henry, 1777-1852.; Henry Clay Memorial Foundation (Lexington, Ky.); Slavery; Swing low, sweet chariot

00:09:19 - Charlotte Dupuy sues Henry Clay

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Partial Transcript: Now, I, I'm interested in, uh, finding--we, we talked, uh--you had a lot to say about Charlotte Dupuy...

Segment Synopsis: Lawson talks about Charlotte Dupuy's 1829 lawsuit against her owner, Henry Clay, to obtain her freedom at the end of his tenure as Secretary of State. She says Clay was living in the Decatur House in Washington, D.C., but was returning to Lexington, and that Dupuy took the move as an opportunity to sue for her freedom, asserting she had been illegally enslaved and sold to Clay. She says the judge hearing the case ordered that Dupuy had to remain in Washington, D.C. until the case was resolved. She says Dupuy argued that she had been free, but that she had been kidnapped and enslaved by a forged document, and thus the sale to Clay was void. She says Dupuy may have been motivated by a desire that her children be freed, and that she apparently maintained Clay's trust to care for his grandchildren in spite of the litigation. She says the Clay and Dupuy families were intermingled through progeny, and that she suspects Charlotte was persistent in seeking her freedom until she obtained it in 1840 by Clay's consent. She talks about Dupuy's husband Aaron who was also a Clay family slave who did not actively seek freedom. She speculates that the descendants of the Clay-Dupuy family probably still live in the area, but may be unaware of their history.

Keywords: Aaron Dupuy; Andrew Jackson; Bill of sale; Daniel Parker; Henry Clay, Jr.; James Condon; Litigation; Little Henry; Mary Ann Dupuy; Original sources; Research; Secretary of State

Subjects: Ashland (Lexington, Ky.); Clay, Henry; Clay, Henry 1777-1852; Clay, Lucretia Hart, 1781-1864; Decatur House (Washington, D.C.); Henry Clay Memorial Foundation (Lexington, Ky.); Slavery

00:16:45 - Living history experience

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Partial Transcript: Well, it's interesting--that doing a living history presentation like this, you could write a book about these things.

Segment Synopsis: Lawson displays and talks about a photograph she has of John Henry Clay, also known as "Little Henry" who was the son of Henry Clay, Jr. by one of his slaves, Mary Ann. She says Little Henry was with Clay, Jr. when the latter was killed at the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847. She talks about Clay, Jr.'s reputation for affectionate relationships with enslaved African American women. She says Henry Clay sold Little Henry at age 15, but that she needs to research additional details. She discusses the research process supporting her living history presentations, and that she has been doing presentations for five or six years. She says she is a Kentucky Chautauqua performer for the Kentucky Humanities Council, and that in the previous year she did 15 presentations. She says many of her presentations are associated with Black History Month, but she hopes that public interest grows because she considers the story to be common community history. She says she has not worked with the Chautauqua performer who does Henry Clay, but has met him and would like to work with him. She says it is important to understand history from an African American perspective, and she refers to the example of a woman saying Henry Clay liked to drink, but that Aaron was an alcoholic.

Keywords: Battle of Buena Vista; Charlotte Dupuy; Henry Clay, Jr.; John Henry Clay (Little Henry); Kentucky Chautauqua; Kentucky Humanities Council; Mary Ann Clay; Slavery

Subjects: Ashland (Lexington, Ky.); Camp Nelson (Ky.); Camp Nelson National Cemetery; Clay, Henry; Clay, Henry 1777-1852.

00:24:00 - Cultural ownership in living history / Authenticity

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Partial Transcript: And that brings to mind another interesting question, um, when I was at Sturbridge Massachusetts in August, uh, doing interviews...

Segment Synopsis: Lawson talks about living history portrayals across racial boundaries. She says that if such a portrayal is done, it must be done with sensitivity and respect. She adds that authenticity is an issue, and that it would be important to represent the perspective of that culture, which can be challenging. She says she would prefer not to see such a portrayal with African Americans or Native Americans. She says complexion or makeup is not the issue, but the message of the presentation which needs to be culturally sensitive. She talks about authenticity and notes that historically speaking, she does not know if Charlotte Dupuy would actually sing even though she includes that in her living history presentation. She says that her singing is a means of expressing passion to capture the interest of listeners, but that the factual substance of her presentations remain as authentic as possible.

Keywords: African Americans; Authenticity; Body paint; European American; First person voice; Native American; Personas; Third person voice

Subjects: Ashland (Lexington, Ky.); Clay, Henry; Clay, Henry 1777-1852.; Sturbridge (Mass.)

00:30:05 - Kentucky Chautauqua

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Partial Transcript: Um, you mentioned that you are part of ch--Kentucky Chautauqua. How long have you been doing that?

Segment Synopsis: Lawson says that Ben Chandler recruited her to become a presenter for Kentucky Chautauqua. She says Chandler was the commissioner of the Kentucky Humanities Council at the time. She talks about the training and research process to prepare to audition for the Kentucky Humanities Council, which included multiple rounds of longer auditions. She says the KHC helped her perfect her performance. She says her perception of the KHC mission was to recruit more performers to represent the African American experience. She says the work is professional and compensated. She says she does not care whether she is called an interpreter or reenactor, and that she refers to herself as a reenactor.

Keywords: Authenticity; Ben Chandler; Experiential learning; First person voice; Kentucky Chautauqua; Kentucky Humanities Council; Personas; Professional; Reenactors; Theater

Subjects: Ashland (Lexington, Ky.); Clay, Henry; Clay, Henry, 1777-1852.; Slavery

00:34:58 - Living history interpretation of slavery

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Partial Transcript: Now I have to, uh, say that one of the reasons I was uh, anxious, I was very, uh, eager t, to interview you was because...

Segment Synopsis: Lawson says that locally in African American churches there are people who reenact portrayals of slavery in plays during Black History Month. She talks about the cultural phenomenon of remembering slavery through reenactment in ways that are unique to the African American community. She says she has only portrayed Charlotte, but has considered developing other stories. She talks about how the KHC encourages development of new portrayals and personas.

Keywords: African American churches; African Americans; Black History Month; Kentucky Chautauqua; Kentucky Humanities Council; Original sources; Storytelling

Subjects: Ashland (Lexington, Ky.); Clay, Henry; Clay, Henry, 1777-1852.; Slavery

00:40:40 - Favorite memory from a living history event

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Partial Transcript: Um, let me wrap it up. I have what I call a capstone question. Um, living history is all about bringing the experiences of the past forward into the present...

Segment Synopsis: Lawson says her favorite memories as a living history presenter involve engaging children. She describes teaching children about our past as her passion. She says she asks children provocative questions about how they would handle bondage, and receives a wide range of responses.

Keywords: Storytelling

Subjects: Ashland (Lexington, Ky.); Clay, Henry; Clay, Henry, 1777-1852.