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Harrisburg MLK play: Slavery tore families apart

The story just grabbed Dorothy King.

It was well-documented that the institution of slavery tore families apart. But the story of the efforts that emancipated slaves made to find and reunited their families hasn't been widely told.

She had read about freed slaves seeking to reunite with their families in the wake of the Civil War and was impressed by its power and what it said about the strength of family bonds.

The stories are, she said, "a little known part of history."

Freed slaves walked from plantation to plantation, seeking wives, husbands and children who had been sold off. They took out ads in newspapers, offering whatever details they could, to try to find their loved ones. They wrote letters to churches asking preachers to read them to their congregations in hopes of solving their family mysteries.

"It speaks to the resiliency of families," King, a professor of sociology at Penn State Harrisburg and a playwright who founded PenOwl Productions.

She wanted to bring it to life, to show the determination of freed slaves to reassemble their families, torn apart by the violence of slavery.

So she wrote "Tell Mama I'll Find Her," a play telling the story of one young man's search for his mother after emancipation. The play, the 18th in a series produced by PenOwl to commemorate Martin Luther King Day, follows the story of Octavius Black as he searches for his mother after the war.

“With people fleeing from war torn and oppressed areas in the world and being separated from loved ones, the questions that "Tell Mama I’ll Find Her" asks are relevant today,” Robert Scott, chairman of PenOwl Productions, was quoted as saying in a news release.

To King, the story shows the power of family and the determination of some to keep their families together.

"They went to great lengths to reunite their families," King said. "Not all of the stories ended well. Sometimes, they just couldn't find their lost loved ones. In some cases, people died, or just couldn’t be found. In some cases, women remarried and when the husband finds her, he can't do anything about it."

She said, "I had to tell this story. I think it’s a story that people don't know about black history, and we should know our history."

If you go 

What: "Tell Mama I'll Find Her," the 18th annual Martin Luther King Day production by PenOwl Productions. 

Where: The Capital Union Building on the Penn State Harrisburg campus. 

When: Noon Monday, Jan. 18; and 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 19. 

Admission: Free. 

Details: For more information or to make reservations, call PenOwl Productions at 717-525-9505.