Storyteller captures life during Lincoln’s time

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Mitch Capel, the Featured speaker for the annual Lincoln Day program, told stories on the themes of emancipation and Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Lincoln City on Sunday.


LINCOLN CITY — “This is hallowed ground I’m walking on,” Mitch Capel, 63, of Southern Pines, North Carolina, told the crowd at the annual Lincoln Day program Sunday at the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial.

The park memorializes where Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, grew up.

“Lincoln became Lincoln as we know him here in Indiana,” Kendell Thompson, the park’s superintendent, said at the start of the program. “Our nation was a nation of slavery until he got to the White House.”

Capel, the featured speaker of the event, performed the poems of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 - 1906), widely acknowledged as the first important African-American poet in American literature.

Dunbar’s mother was born into slavery.

Capel — a storyteller, recording artist, poet, actor and author — said he enjoys Dunbar’s work because starting when Capel was about 3 years old, he would visit his grandmother and she would read to him from the life works of the poet, “Cabin Tale.”

Capel is a storyteller, recording artist, poet, actor and author who incorporates poetry, stories, and costumes into his presentations.

“When I finished college, dad handed me that book,” Capel said. He then read the book to his children every night.

He now has nearly 70 percent of Dunbar’s work memorized and uses some of it for his storytelling programs across the U.S. He’s been a storyteller since 1985.

“What drew me to Dunbar was his capturing of African-American life and African-American dialect,” Capel said.

He told Sunday’s audience: “I hope you see the imagery through the song and story, that we’re all human beings.”

One poem said: “I know what the caged bird feels ... I know why he beats his wings.”

Another: “I’m gonna lay down my burden down by the riverside.”

And yet another: “Oh, freedom over me, before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in a grave and go home to my lord and be free.”

Capel said he has more than 33 hours of material for his programs and for Sunday, he “pulled out some stories dealing with Abraham Lincoln and how African Americans felt during that time.”

The audience gave him a standing ovation at the conclusion of his performance, which also included props and costume changes.

“I’m just honored to be here and to be a historian,” Capel said.

Sunday’s Lincoln Day program also included the singing of patriotic songs; remarks from Thompson and Evelyn Adams, the president of Lincoln Club of Southern Indiana; and a eulogy and the placing of memorial wreaths to honor Nancy Hanks Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s mother.

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