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Iowa Juneteenth celebrations include premiere of ‘Cross-Examined,’ a play about desegregating Post-Emancipation Keokuk


Cross-Examined

Coralville Public Library — Sunday, June 18 at 3 p.m.
Keokuk Public Library — Monday, June 19 at 6 p.m.

A new play about integration in Keokuk premieres at the Coralville Public Library in recognition of Juneteenth. — photo by Zak Neumann

Cross-Examined, a play by University of Iowa MFA playwriting candidate Margot Connolly, will be performed at the Coralville Public Library on Sunday, June 18 at 3 p.m. as well as the Keokuk Public Library on Monday, 19 at 6 p.m, as part of the local Juneteenth commemoration. Both events are free and open to the public.

Cross-Examined limns the lives of two African American women from Keokuk who fought for the integration of their kids into the public school system — a case that made its way to the Iowa Supreme Court, becoming a benchmark for the state’s civil rights movement.

Though part of the Union, the state of Iowa and its white denizens grappled with the meaning of freedom for its African American communities in the aftermath of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Connolly’s production is informed by the well-detailed legal documents and the research of UI history professor Leslie Schwalm.

“The history is so rich and so alive,” Connolly says.

In many ways Iowa has been — and is — a microcosm of the political tumult nationwide. African Americans migrated to the Upper Midwest in the postbellum years. Between 1860 and 1870 over 750 new black families relocated to the Iowa’s four southeastern-most counties, including Keokuk, according to Schwalm’s research into census data. Charlotta Smith, one of the mothers at the center of Cross-Examined, was one such former-slave who migrated to Iowa from Kentucky.

Charlotta petitioned for her 16-year-old son Geroid’s admission into the Keokuk all-white high school, while Mary Jane Dove, the other plaintiff and adopted mother of Charles, sought for her nine-year-old son to enter the all-white elementary school. The two mothers weren’t given much space to speak, hedged to the peripheries in that courtroom in the spring of 1874.

They sought the help of white lawyers — there were no black lawyers in Iowa at the time — and the case was appealed up to the Iowa Supreme Court. The state’s highest court of law determined that it was unconstitutional for districts to exclude black students from their public schools or compel them to attend segregated schools.

Connolly’s play is just as much about the result of the court cases as the nuances of the battle — the legal details, the dialogue, the fight for room to speak by two African American women.

“I was really struck by the mothers,” Connolly says. “They barely spoke in the courtroom but became so much a part of the narrative.”

At one point in the hearings Charlotta describes the school claiming to her that there weren’t enough seats for Geroid. Charlotta exclaimed she’d send him into school with a chair, if that was the case.

The details of Connolly’s play are taken from the transcripts and rulings that still exist from Dove, Smith, et al. versus the Independent School District of the City of Keokuk. Cross-Examined — which takes its name from Charlotta’s line in the play “They cross-examined me, asked me hadn’t I talked with the superintendent … hadn’t he told me that if Geroid passed he’d go to high school at the colored school, hadn’t I agreed to that? And I said no.” — evokes the struggle of two marginalized women, fighting against a system which would rather not recognize them.

“I’m searching for ways to make history accessible to students,” Connolly says about Cross-Examined as well as her intentions as a playwright. “My hope is to spark an interest in these things.”

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