The story of escaped slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman has been told across America for many years — the bravery she displayed in leading hundreds of slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

But a story that fewer people have heard is that of African American Ann Bradford Stokes, who served as a Civil War nurse on the U.S. Navy hospital ship USS Red Rover. 

She was taken aboard a ship as a captured runaway slave in January 1863, but the Emancipation Proclamation freed her. She volunteered to serve as a nurse on the Red Rover. She was the first African American Navy nurse to be granted a pension for her service.

For the first time in Pekin, Stokes’ story will come to life at the 24th Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at 9:30 a.m. Saturday at the Grace United Methodist Church, 601 N. Fourth St., Pekin. 

Stokes’ story will be portrayed by storyteller and living history actor Marlene Rivero. The YWCA received a grant to pay all but $75 of her performance fee from the Illinois Humanities Council.

YWCA Executive Director Melinda Figge said the story will be very interesting.

“She’s kind of probably a new character to most of us, including me, so I think it will be really interesting to learn her story and have some more familiarity with a very courageous woman who served in an unusual role, especially for those times.”

The morning will start with a light continental breakfast at 9:30 a.m. with the performance at 10 a.m. Students from Dirksen Primary School will perform under the direction of music teacher Jane Stropes. The event is free to the public. Children in attendance will receive a free book.

Figge said the YWCA has been involved with the Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast since 2003, when it joined forces with the Pekin Coalition for Equality. It has been a great success, she said.

“That organization really had a great match with the YWCA’s mission,” said Figge. “Our mission is to eliminate racism, empower women and promote peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all.

“The coalition’s mission was about preventing discrimination and promoting multiculturalism. It was just such a great match that it made sense for it to be a program of the YWCA.”

Last year, those attending were asked to bring a food item for the Pekin Outreach Initiative’s Snackpacs program. Sponsors for that program are providing the food for the snackpacs. This year, the POI is requesting that people attending bring items for its new Toiletry Pantries for local junior high and high school students. The items are provided to needy children at the schools, said Figge.

Toiletry items include deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, toothpaste, toothbrushes and lotion.