By Clay Riness —
Denise Christy-Moss and Rebecca Mormann-Krieger are both retired teachers who taught together at the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, but eventually they found their way back to the Coulee Region. The two are still working together. This time around, they’re developing something unique and special with regard to our local history … a play.
Mormann-Krieger is writing the two-act play, entitled “Enduring Families,” which will cover a time period from 1854 to the 1930s. In large part, it traces the roots of settlers in the Cheyenne Valley, near Wildcat Mountain, first settled by the Revels family in 1854. The play’s timeline follows future generations of the Revels and 11 other Cheyenne Valley families that eventually find their way to La Crosse, including some that opened businesses.
“We have two narrators (characters), a man named John Birney and a woman named Delia Roberts-Walden. As we go from one scene to the next, one will be handing things off to the other,” explains Mormann-Krieger.
“What makes it really interesting is that it (Cheyenne Valley) is a tri-racial community of free people of color, Native Americans and white indentured people,” says Christy-Moss. “And the unique racial makeup of this community, and how it spread and eventually migrated to La Crosse is what the focus of the play is going to be.”
“We would not have been able to do any of this were it not for Bruce Mouser, who published the book, ‘Black La Crosse,’” adds Mormann-Krieger. “That’s where the bios for the play have come from.”
Some of the characters in the play might ring a bell with local history buffs. John Birney was the first African-American barber in La Crosse. Elizabeth Burt invested in property and building projects with limited resources but achieved noteworthy success. Lillian Davenport was a noted vaudeville performer and activist against Jim Crow practices. Of course, the recognizable Nathan Smith operated a successful farm near West Salem where he and his wife raised several adopted children. George Poage is remembered for his superior athletic abilities and was the first African-American athlete to win a medal in the Olympic Games, winning two bronze medals at the 1904 games in St. Louis.
Christy-Moss is producing the production. “I’m taking part in the grant writing, locating venues, finding performers and costumes … all of the stuff a producer would do,” she says. She also has a personal stake in the show. A descendant of the Micajah Revels (the first settler in Cheyenne Valley) married a man named Zacharias Henry Moss, great-grandfather to her husband, John. The whole project, she says, started with John’s ancestry.
The play is slated to debut in June 2019 at Weber Center. In the meantime, Christy-Moss and Mormann-Krieger are actively seeking actors to appear in the show.
The two historians have something else in the works as well. The African American Mutual Assistance Network (AAMAN) and the Enduring Families Project are co-sponsoring a free historical trolley tour in La Crosse on Saturday, June 23, 2018, as part of AAMAN’s Annual Citywide Juneteenth Celebration.
The tour will stop at several residences and businesses that were occupied by early African-American residents, dating from 1860 to 1930. Re-enactors in period costume will tell the stories of these early residents and their lives in the La Crosse area. The La Crosse County Historical Society, School District of La Crosse, La Crosse Public Library, UW-L, WLAX and other community organizations are supportive of the tour, as well as the overall project.
“And, there’s one more thread,” adds Christy-Moss. “Because this is so educational and eye-opening, we’re going to be taking it into the schools. Sixth graders have a unit on local La Crosse history and eighth graders have a unit on U.S. history, so we’ll go to them and do scenes from the play. That will be a good fit. We’ll be coming in with study guides, activities, and background material for the scenes.”
While producing a project that spans 76 years of history may seem like a tall mountain to climb, it seems certain that these two creative history enthusiasts and their team will reach the summit. And, La Crosse, on many counts, will be all the better for it.
For more information on the historical trolley tour, search for African American Living History Tour on Facebook. For tour times and to register, visit aaman.us/tour.html.