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  • "Why I Wrote the Phyllis Wheatley Pageant-Play"Mary Church Terrell's Bicentennial Activism
  • Lurana Donnels O'Malley (bio)

Sometimes I joke in rehearsal, "If this was truly a period piece, I'd be in chains somewhere."


Hamilton: An American Musical, the groundbreaking creation of Lin-Manuel Miranda, broke that ground in part by casting actors of color as key historical figures of the American Revolution and its aftermath. On Broadway, African American actors played three US presidents: Okieriete Onaodowan (James Madison), Daveed Diggs (Thomas Jefferson), and Christopher Jackson (George Washington).1 Jackson, however, was not the first man of African descent to portray George Washington on the American stage. More than eighty years earlier, in 1932, a black man played the role in a production that explored the relation between America's founding fathers and the people they enslaved: Mary Church Terrell's Historical Pageant-Play Based on the Life of Phyllis Wheatley.2 As critic Lyra D. Monteiro notes about Hamilton, there is "a truly damning omission in [Hamilton]: despite the proliferation of black and brown bodies onstage, not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play."3 In contrast, the 1932 production of Terrell's script placed the eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley front and center as an enslaved African American character with agency and impact.

Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954) was an African American educator, writer [End Page 225] suffragist, and civil rights activist. Terrell (figure 1) was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the first president of the National Association of Colored Women, and the first black woman in the United States appointed as a member of a board of education, in Washington, DC. Although Terrell was a prolific writer (the author of numerous essays and articles in addition to her autobiography), to my knowledge she wrote only two scripts, both intended as contributions to the 1932 bicentennial celebration of George Washington's birthday: a pageant about the African American soldiers who fought in the Revolutionary War and a biographical pageant-play on Phillis Wheatley. The former was never staged; the latter was performed as part of the official Washington, DC, festivities for Washington's bicentennial.

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Figure 1.

Portrait of Mary Church Terrell,

courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University Archives, Howard University, Washington, DC.

Terrell's stated goal for both historical pageants was to combat the negative and demeaning images of African Americans she had encountered in other plays and pageants planned for the Washington bicentennial. In Phyllis Wheatley, Terrell exposes the injustice of authentication rituals, as Wheatley is again [End Page 226] and again asked to prove the validity of her talent as a writer. Ironically, Terrell herself faced such judgment from two sides: from black critics opposed to the Washington bicentennial's representations of African Americans and from production staff and supporters who questioned the historical authenticity of her pageant-play. Although the production faced numerous obstacles and was considerably downsized from the original plans, the performance, created by a dozen artists and staff members, featured a cast of more than two hundred African Americans, most of them public school youths performing for their own community. Phyllis Wheatley was ultimately the only staged birthday bicentennial event to place African American history at center stage and in a positive light.

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Figure 2.

Engraving of Phillis Wheatley, 1773, attributed to Scipio Moorhead. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Washington, DC.

As Terrell knew, the historical Wheatley (figure 2) was not only contemporaneous with Washington but also had an unusual connection to him. In October 1775, Wheatley composed a poem in honor of General Washington and sent it to him at his headquarters in Cambridge along with a brief note; in February 1776, Washington wrote a reply to thank her for it.4 Wheatley's poem first appeared in print in the Virginia Gazette in March 1776; titled "To his Excellency [End Page 227] George Washington," the panegyric praises Washington but also requests that he be guided by the...