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A lynching in Oklahoma
"Although it's 101 years later, I want to learn more about Laura Nelson and give voice to her story-a counter-narrative from the perspective of a black woman." -Debra Leigh

by Debra Leigh

I am beginning the process of creating a ballet. In choreographers' lingo, "I am with dance!" Yes, like a mother with child, I was impregnated with an idea when I saw a May 24, 2011, article in the Oklahoma Gazette titled, "A Century Later, the Photograph of an Oklahoma Lynching Still Resonates." The article had a graphic image of a woman and her son hanging over the Canadian River with a lynch mob posing on the bridge above.

It is the story of Laura Nelson, her infant baby and teenaged son-all murdered by a lynch mob in Okemah, Okla., in 1911. Woody Guthrie, an American singer-songwriter and folk musician, wrote a song about this incident, "Don't Kill My Baby and My Son." Guthrie's father was part of the lynch mob.

Although it's 101 years later, I want to learn more about Nelson and give voice to her story-a counter-narrative from the perspective of a black woman. I want the ballet to be a theatrical rendering of a story danced through the life of a black woman who was among other things, a loving mother pleading for the life of her two children. I want the audience to have a glimpse of the real woman, a person with depth, dealing with all of life's complexities, and not just the black woman hanging from the bridge on a novelty post card.

I plan to visit Okemah, Okla., to meet the people who live there today. I want to see the town, walk the streets and eat at places where 100 years ago black people were not allowed to enter.

I want to spend time combing through the archives in the library to find stories about other black people who lived in Okemah. I'm interested in finding stories of black women. What did they do? Where did they go? I'd like to visit Nelson's gravesite. I want to walk on that bridge and look into the river. I want to discover what characteristics she and other African-American women of Okemah possessed. What was her life like in 1911? Did she have other family? I want to know the relationship between the lynch mob and her family. Were they strangers? Did they know each other? What was a normal day like in the life of Laura Nelson?


For this project I will research the folk music of the time, especially in those areas where lynching was common. Then I will develop the storyline for the ballet, creating each chapter line by line like writing a book. The music and design elements will be chosen, putting the story line with the dancer's choreography. Costumes, props and lighting will be created.

The graphic image began as a photograph, then a postcard. It appeared in a book, inspired a folk song and was exhibited at a New York art gallery. Giving voice to this story is one small way that I can give something positive back to Laura Nelson and her family. It's giving recognition and honor to her life.

Debra Leigh is the lead organizer for the Community Anti-Racism Education Initiative at St. Cloud State University.

Reader Comments

Posted: Friday, March 23, 2012
Article comment by: Leigh Ahmad

What a great idea- I look forward to learning through your discovery.

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