Interactive event to commemorate Oakland slave trial


Interactive event to commemorate Oakland slave trial

Many cities and towns in Illinois have a story to share about Abraham Lincoln.

In the Coles County seat of Oakland, there's the tale of the Matson Slave Trial – one of Lincoln's legal defeats.

In commemoration of the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, Oakland is hosting an interactive event, "Trial and Tribulations," on Friday and Saturday.

The slave trial in 1847 was one of the most important of Lincoln's career. It was also the only time Lincoln defended a slave owner, Robert Matson, who was trying to keep people enslaved. Matson owned property and slaves in Kentucky, but also brought slaves to his farm in Illinois, where slavery was illegal.

In an attempt to gain their freedom, Jane Bryant and her four children were aided by abolitionist Oakland residents Dr. Hiram Rutherford and Gideon Ashmore, to challenge Matson's right to hold slaves in the state.

Matson was holding the Bryant family and others as slaves in Illinois. The argument was that since slavery was illegal in Illinois, the Bryants should be free and Matson should not be allowed to hold them as slaves on his Illinois farm. Matson's argument was that they were still his property even in Illinois, because he owned them in Kentucky, where slavery was legal.

Program participants will visit two historic sites in the Oakland area, enjoy an 1847 meal and see an original play depicting the trial and related issues of the times.

Actors will portray the main characters in the trial at the Rutherford House in downtown Oakland. They will portray some characters from the 1870s era to discuss the aftermath of the trial and its effect on their lives and the town.

A group of professional interpreters called Free Town Village from Indianapolis will portray the Bryants and residents of a nearby freed black community of the day referred to as the Brushy Fork community. Jane Bryant's husband, Anthony, was a freedman and thought to be the spiritual leader of the community.

The presentation will take place at Independence Pioneer Village, which is a group of restored log structures north of Oakland. Actors will discuss the effect of the trial on the African-American population at the time.

An original play, entitled "Three-Fifths of a Man," was written by former Eastern Illinois University President David Jorns for the event. Jorns said the work is more of an assembly of his writing and that of others.

"A lot of the play is taken verbatim from court records," Jorns said.

The story of the trial and surrounding issues will be told in a theatrical way, rather than a re-enactment, in this hourlong production.

Jorns said, "It was an interesting time in Lincoln's development as a person. His position was not the position we all associate with him today." Jorns believes Lincoln's involvement in this trial changed his outlook on slavery.

According to program coordinator Renee Henry, Lincoln never spoke or wrote about his involvement in the trial, so his actions during the trial have been open to interpretation over the years. The Trials and Tribulations event will inform participants about different theories and insight into the nature of the trial and the national issues at the time.

"They knew that this was an important case and they wanted to get it right," Henry said. Two circuit judges sat on the trial, the best lawyers on the circuit were hired and the decision was published in a law review, all of which rarely happened. "It was meant to set precedents," she said.

However, she said the issue would not have been tried without the courage of the Bryant family.

"It was the slaves saying 'this is intolerable' and seeking help that brought the issue to trial," Henry said.

The event is being sponsored by the Oakland Historical Foundation, Oakland Landmarks Inc., Independence Pioneer Village, Oakland Chamber of Commerce and the city of Oakland.

"Excitement is starting to build in town," said Henry, but more volunteers are needed to help with the setup and event activities.

Visitors can choose from three presentation times over the two days. Each program is limited to 250 participants. The $25 tickets can be ordered by phone at 508-9113 or by e-mail at

School programs are also being offered on the morning and early afternoon of Sept. 18. The shortened presentation is geared for grades 5-12 and includes pre- and post-visit activities and materials for all registered classes. The program is available for $4 a student. Reservations can be arranged through the same ticket contacts.

If you go

What: "Trial and Tribulation," an interactive event commemorating a slave trial involving Abraham Lincoln

When: 4 to 8:30 p.m. Friday; 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 4 to 8:30 p.m. Saturday; school programs 9 to 11:15 a.m. or 11:45 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday

Where: Rutherford House, downtown Oakland

Tickets: $25 per person includes meal, play and historic sites; $20 per person in a group of 10 or more (order in advance from 508-9113 or

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