Living History: I played a black Civil War veteran

Reggie Kellum plays Howard Brooks at Talking Spirits Cemetery Tour 2017The annual “Talking Spirit’s” walking tour produced by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum highlights the local and state history buried in the picturesque Forest Hill Cemetery in Madison. Every year, about 2,000 school children arrive by the busload to walk the grounds with a knowledgeable tour guide. Along the paths, they stop to hear from four people, all actors in period clothing portraying real people. The scripts for these characters are researched by the museum staff and written by a playwright.  They are chosen to reveal often lesser-known  experiences of the Civil War. History comes to life through these real stories and theatrical vignettes.

Howard Brooks was of these characters for the fall 2016 Talking Spirits tour.

Of this year’s characters, the least is known about Howard Brooks. He was born a slave in Virginia and went on to fight in the 29th Colored Infantry. At some point, he was liberated. It not known if he ran away or how he ended up in Madison. Gwen Rice, this year’s playwright, said about the character of Brooks, “That’s when you go to more general themes” to flesh out the character.

The WHC gave the project a Major Grant (we’ve funded Talking Spirits three times since 2014). This year, students from 22 different schools attended. We heard from teacher evaluations that many students were very moved by Howard Brooks, who was brought to life by actor Reggie Kellum. 

We decided to ask Reggie about his experience playing the middle-aged former slave, soldier and southern transplant.

Reginald Kellum was born in Chicago and moved to La Crosse when he was 9 years old. He says, “La Crosse was completely different from Chicago in almost all aspects.” His mother eventually moved the family again, this time to Sun Prairie, where Reggie finished middle and high school. He fell in love with acting while attending Madison College and now continues his studies back in Chicago at Second City. His life experiences, including the racism of his youth and “the stress of my father being diagnosed with schizophrenia” drive Reggie in his work. He feels especially grateful for the opportunity to have learned more about American history through Howard Brooks’ story and will be performing in character again this spring at the Milton Historical Society’s Civil War Living History Days (funded in part with a major grant from the WHC).

WHC: Tell us, in your own words, who is Howard Brooks?

KELLUM: Howard Brooks is blacksmith forge man who is in his early 50s. He’s a man that loves to give good advice to folks in need of it. His life experiences have given him crucial knowledge for how to properly interact with his environment. Howard Brooks has a big heart and appreciates his opportunities to contribute to his community. 

WHC: What inspired you most about his story, as it was characterized by Gwen Rice (the Wisconsin Veterans Museum researcher)?

KELLUM: I was inspired by Howard Brooks’ story because as I was reading it with Gwen Rice, I visualized a man who really wanted more for himself and African Americans. He was not only motivated by his present generation, but he wanted to leave a mark for the future. I understand that idea because everyday I think about the legacy I want to leave for my sons and the legacy I want to leave for my generation. 

WHC: What did you do to get into the character?

KELLUM: Getting into Howard Brooks’ character was fun and difficult. The difficult part was that I hadn’t been on stage in a while. I messed up terribly on my dress rehearsal the day before the first performance. The fun part was having loving people and supportive people in my corner who believed that I would get it right. Gwen has really helped me develop Howard Brooks with her research and recommendations. Gwen explained the social environment during the time and gave me visual cues so I could imagine it and set myself into it. I put Brooks’ character into that time frame and pictured myself talking to a group of African American kids during that era.  

WHC: As an actor, what is challenging about performing for school groups?

KELLUM: The difficult part of performing Brooks’ speech in front of school kids was their reactions to the language. The middle schoolers  made shocking sounds that really made it hard to stay in character. In addition, I was standing two feet away from my audience. That made it exciting, but a little bit of a challenge.

i-care-about-my-legacy2WHC: What did you learn from Howard Brooks about yourself?

KELLUM: I learned through this role of Mr. Brooks how much I really care about my legacy that I’ll leave here on earth.

WHC: What do you think Howard Brooks would say about your life, opportunities, and experiences in America today?

KELLUM: I think If Howard Brooks could say something to me about my life, opportunities, and experiences in America today, he would tell me that at face view, things are really bad for African Americans living with the side effects of history. But, I think he would also tell me to take the faults and don’t fight negativity with fire. I think his advice would be to encourage not only your culture, but to also stand tall and don’t silence yourself to injustice. Love everyone around you no matter what, but don’t settle because that will create a culture of settlers. 


Photos used with permission from the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.



More to read and think about:

Working Lives Project bookmark All about Race

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2 Responses

  1. This is truly a good idea to act a character for teaching. It’s easier to understand for a kid because it is visual. I mean, it is like when you read historic books about american soldiers, or I don’t know books about Frida Kahlo, and then you watch the film. We better understand in a film all the emotions, what the person looks like, how she lived.
    This is a good idea and for sure a good experience for kids.

  2. Mary Michaud says:

    I accompanied 60 5th graders and saw Mr. Kellum portray Mr. Brooks. His portrayal was deeply moving. The kids will not forget it. Ms. Rice captured the fortitude and grit required to survive in those times.

    Every time I drive past Forest Hill (which is almost daily), I think about Mr. Brooks and the others portrayed with such reverence that day in the Cemetery. It connects me to our past and reminds me of the struggles for equity that have come before and those that we continue today.

    THANK you for this valuable program.

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