by Emily Zimmerman
Unite Guest Writer
Springfield, MO—The Milly Project has placed as a winner in two categories and a finalist in one at the New York International Film Awards.
Nearly two centuries have passed since Milly Sawyers was first known. While a lot about her still remains a mystery, archivists, journalists, and even students have helped in retelling her story.
Milly Sawyers was a black woman from Springfield, Missouri who won her freedom from slavery at an 1835 court proceeding. Although the beginning life of Milly Sawyers is still unknown, archivists were able to piece together remnants of her life. In her earlier years, worn-out records make historians believe that Sawyers first lived in Ohio: a state that made slavery illegal at the time. When she was taken as a slave, people also believe that she was passed around and had a total of three masters; however, that didn’t stop her from fighting for her freedom despite the odds. When she moved to Saint Louis, Missouri, Sawyers went to trial twice to win her freedom, claiming it was illegal for her to be a slave since she was originally born in a free state. Unfortunately, she lost both of the trials. It wasn’t until she moved to Springfield that she tried fighting for her freedom again. This ime, she succeeded and won the trial. Unhappy that a freed black woman was living among them, an angry mob came after her several months later, dragged her into the street and beat her.
This story was then forgotten for years to come, collecting dust on the shelves. It wasn’t
until 2017 that the director of Greene County Archivist Springfield, Missouri, Connie Yen, found a particular file over African-American History, which led to her rediscovery of Sawyers’ story. Shortly after her findings, Connie Yen reported the story to Giacomo Bologna, but it didn’t stop there. Once Bologna published the story, it caught the eye of a Willard High School theater teacher, Kendra Chappell.
Sawyers’ story inspired Chappell to act, leading to the start of the Milly Project. Soon after that, Sawyers’ story took off.
“The Milly Project’’ is a play that tells the newly unveiled story of an enslaved woman who relentlessly fought for and won her freedom in Springfield: a play that was based on the handwritten court manuscripts from Sawyers’ trial.
Once Chappell finished writing the script, she had help from her students to perform the project and bring it to fruition. It’s an emotional performance that reminds people of the forgotten parts of Missouri’s history. As Kendra Chappell mentions,”Hidden stories help us move forwards as a community.” Stories like Milly Sawyers’ can help people understand and respect the past.
The truth can be scary, but despite the project receiving some backlash from people at first, the Milly Project, like Milly, persisted.
With the help of GoFundme and the community, the project was made into a film. In two days, the cast was able to rehearse the
show, and after many rewrites, they were able to film the movie itself in one day.
The film has won Best Social Justice Film, Best Screenplay, and was a finalists for Best Acting Ensemble. Thanks to the awards, the project was able to receive more recognition and push the story forward to more people.
Chappell mentioned, “the project has created a deeper love as I have been broken by many consequences brought forth by the telling of this story. The mission of telling our history and the mission of Milly Sawyers is why we tell the story: freedom.” In the future, those involved with the project hope that Sawyers’ story will expand to other communities and be seen at events such as festivals or live productions.