On a Kentucky Riverbank, a Path to Remembrance

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Sometimes Hannah Drake stands on the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville, closes her eyes and tries to conjure the faces and tales of enslaved girls, males and youngsters who stood on that very same land. What had been they dreaming of as they appeared throughout the river — simply a mile vast in some locations, far much less in others — to Indiana, towards freedom? How many made the try to escape by disguising themselves and hiding away on a boat, by crossing on a skiff at the hours of darkness of evening or on foot on narrower elements of the river when it froze? How many made it?

Drake, a spoken-word poet, visible artist, writer and an activist who has been a central voice within the Breonna Taylor protest motion, started pondering a number of years in the past concerning the misplaced and the skinny narratives of enslaved Louisvillians when she visited Natchez, Miss., and its Museum of African American History and Culture.

One wall featured a map exhibiting the slavery route from Louisville, down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, to Natchez, one of many largest slave-trading cities within the United States. She additionally noticed the names of dozens of enslaved males, girls and youngsters shipped from Kentucky to Natchez. By the 1850s, Kentucky was one of many main states exporting individuals to the Deep South — about 2,500 to four,000 a 12 months, in accordance to Patrick A. Lewis, the director of collections and analysis on the Filson Historical Society within the metropolis.

“I knew Louisville was instrumental in the slave trade,” Drake, who was born in Colorado and may’t hint her family historical past again greater than two generations, advised me just lately. “I didn’t know how intricate and deep.”

Hannah Drake, a spoken-word poet, visible artist and activist on the waterfront web site in Louisville the place the (Un)Known Project will unfold starting Juneteenth with benches going through the the Ohio River. She needs guests “to see how shut Indiana is and what it have to be like to be enslaved and know that freedom is correct there,” she mentioned.Credit…Andrew Cenci for The New York Times

Not lengthy after that journey, Drake walked among the many rusted metal pillars hanging on the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Ala. Each pillar included the title of a U.S. county the place racial terror lynchings happened and listed the victims’ names. Drake had assumed she’d discover a handful from Kentucky: There had been 65 pillars and 169 names. Among them, eight victims had no title. Those lynchings had been recorded in public data with out figuring out particulars; pillars listing the victims merely as “unknown.” Before Drake left the museum that day, she purchased a pocket book and wrote two phrases: Unknown Project.

Next Saturday, on Juneteenth, Drake and her work accomplice, Josh Miller (collectively they run an arts group known as IDEAS xLab) will formally dedicate the (Un)Known Project. The multimedia art work is each a remembrance and a provocation — a memorial to these whose tales won’t ever be uncovered, in addition to a problem to the general public to unearth narratives that will exist, however are hidden in archives, in attics, in household genealogies, in company histories. The hope is to assist shift these narratives from the class of “forgotten” to “known.”

“I don’t want people to feel any shame in it,” mentioned Drake. Several individuals have already come to her and Miller with names of enslaved individuals, in a single case on a household ledger, in one other in a will. “It’s OK to release those names if you have them. To me, it’s healing on both sides.”

Rendering of the benches created by the artists William M. Duffy and Dave Caudill for the (Un)Known Project, with first names of enslaved Kentuckians. On the platform is a poem by Hannah Drake and sandblasted footprints representing enslaved households.Credit…by way of (Un)Known Project

Drake, 44, who was in her 20s when she moved to Louisville together with her daughter, Brianna, is blunt, heat, humorous and intensely busy.

In addition to her day job as chief artistic officer at IDEAS xLab, she has written and carried out poetry with the Louisville Ballet, in addition to the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The National Academy of Medicine featured her poem, “Spaces,” in an exhibition about well being fairness. In 2019, her intelligent and piercing video “All You Had to Do Is Play the Game, Boy,” about Colin Kaepernick, captured thousands and thousands of views and reward from Ava DuVernay. Recently, Sadiqa Reynolds, president of the Louisville Urban League, commissioned Drake’s poem, “While We Were Building,” which is now etched into the pavement of a new, $53 million sports activities and studying advanced in Louisville’s largely Black West End neighborhood.

The first element of Drake and Miller’s multiphase (Un)Known Project is 2 benches that can sit atop a platform between ninth and 10th Streets, angled towards one another and overlooking the Ohio River. Both benches are product of granite, limestone and metal.

William M. Duffy, the lead artist, collaborated with the sculptor Dave Caudill on the design, with enter from the group, mission companions and IDEAS xLab. Engraved into the backs of the benches are the phrases, “We are descendants of kings and queens who were enslaved in America,” from Lamont Collins, founding father of Roots 101 African American History Museum right here. Other phrases are from 13-year-old Sage Snyder, a pupil who’s a part of an activist group, Justice Now: “Countless stories of enslaved have not been told. Say their names and listen to what you hear. It is time for their legacies to appear.”

Duffy’s hand-etched pictures of a girl and man, impressed by images and artworks of enslaved individuals, sit within the middle. And wrapped across the legs are metallic chains with shackles damaged open. On the bench platform is Drake’s poem “Finding Me.”

“When people sit here,” Drake mentioned one afternoon, as we stood close to the place the memorial might be put in, “I want them to see how close Indiana is and what it must be like to be enslaved and know that freedom is right there.”

William M. Duffy, a Louisville artist, is engraving granite and limestone benches with faces representing an enslaved girl and man. Credit…Andrew Cenci for The New York Times

As she had written on Twitter two months earlier: “Enslaved Black people were here in Kentucky. They existed. They breathed. And we must acknowledge them.”

No one is aware of precisely what number of enslaved individuals made it throughout the river into Indiana and onward to freedom, however the Louisville space was a key crossing web site within the U.S. Based on a fugitive slave database and misplaced property reviews, between 1850-1860, a whole bunch of individuals escaped Kentucky yearly (many had been possible recaptured), in accordance to the historian J. Blaine Hudson in “Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland.” (Until his dying in 2013, Hudson was professor of Pan-African Studies on the University of Louisville.)

Brianna Wright, a Louisville activist and the daughter of Hannah Drake, is one among 4 individuals who lent their footprints to the (Un)Known Project set up.Credit…Andrew Cenci for The New York TimesElmer Lucille Allen, who in 1966 grew to become the primary Black chemist at Brown-Forman in Louisville, one of many largest American-owned firms within the spirits enterprise, offered her footprints to the (Un)Known Project.Credit…Andrew Cenci for The New York TimesNigel Blackburn, a fellow on the Youth Violence Prevention Research Center, volunteered his footprints.Credit…Andrew Cenci for The New York TimesMalik Barker, a grandson of J. Blaine Hudson, the famous professor of Pan-African Studies in Louisville, contributed footprints to the (Un)Known Project.Credit…Andrew Cenci for The New York Times

To conjure pictures of enslaved individuals heading to the river, the (Un)Known Project will function 4 units of footprints representing the trail of a household — two adults and two kids. The prints might be sandblasted into a new sidewalk for a number of blocks alongside the waterfront main to the benches, as a part of the town’s upgrades that can even embody a bike and pedestrian path and extra inexperienced area.

Another element of their mission, funded by the Ford Foundation and different teams, is the Floating Reconciliation Experience. It will happen on the Belle of Louisville, the oldest working steamboat within the United States, which holds 800 passengers and is docked not removed from the benches. The boat journeys, that are anticipated to start in 2022, will function experiential theater and occasions associated to the antebellum South.

Next 12 months, each the Frazier History Museum and Roots 101 will function exhibitions tied to the mission, together with one which recounts the story of Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, a Louisville couple who escaped their enslavers, touchdown in Detroit, the place they had been imprisoned by slave catchers and sentenced to be returned to Kentucky. The Blackburns escaped as soon as once more and ultimately reached Canada, the place Thornton began a taxi service.

A ledger that features the gross sales of enslaved individuals from a port in Indiana is displayed by Lamont Collins, founding father of the Roots 101 African American Museum.Credit…Andrew Cenci for The New York Times

As Drake and I talked concerning the Blackburns one chilly October afternoon, she famous that the couple was one instance of Louisville’s failure to reckon with the slavery of its previous, a legacy that continues ahead. She and I had met earlier that day at Jefferson Square, the epicenter of the Breonna Taylor motion. Drake had spoken and marched in quite a few rallies, reciting her poetry in her sonorous voice. She’d been tear-gassed by police and seen quite a few buddies arrested. She was within the crowd, burying her head within the arms of a good friend and weeping earlier than comforting others within the moments after the Kentucky legal professional common, Daniel Cameron, introduced in September that no officers can be charged within the taking pictures dying of Taylor.

Drake additionally stood on the steps of Louisville’s metropolis corridor reciting a highly effective rendition of her poem “Formation” after the town council voted to ban no-knock warrants. For months, too, Drake was a part of a casual group of Black girls of their 30s and 40s who had been typically within the sq. supporting youthful activists and serving to them entry a sanctuary church after curfews to keep away from arrests. The girls, as Drake put it, “kept this city from burning.”

When artists and group leaders discuss Drake, they virtually inevitably convey up her generosity. “People don’t realize in addition to going to protests, she’s writing grants during the day and going to these fund-raisers and sitting in powerful spaces with people who maybe haven’t had these conversations about race,” mentioned Sidney Monroe, a theater professor on the University of Louisville and the artistic director of the Floating Reconciliation Experience.

Indeed, Drake is usually the one Black individual within the houses of the wealthiest white Louisvillians, reciting her poetry, giving talks about race, gender and politics. On the streets, strangers come up to thank her, and discuss Louisville’s race points.

Hannah Drake’s poem, “While We Were Building,” is etched into the pavement on the Norton Healthcare Sports & Learning Center in Louisville’s West End. It tells of what was occurring within the metropolis in 2020, because the advanced was being erected.Credit…Andrew Cenci for The New York Times

She is printed on the metropolis. When many downtown eating places and companies boarded up their doorways and home windows final summer season after protests, KMAC, a up to date artwork museum, began a program known as “Words Not Boards,” with Drake’s poem “Dawn” featured throughout three towering home windows. Among her different artwork initiatives was a 2018 set up that featured a pile of cotton and re-creations of cotton-picking luggage on which she screen-printed poetry and silhouettes of herself, her mom (who picked cotton as a little one) and different girls.

“There is a fierceness, a beauty, a joyful spirit in her work,” mentioned Robert Barry Fleming, govt creative director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. “She creates pieces of resilient joy.” Last 12 months Fleming requested Drake to curate a assortment of poetry and music for a web based efficiency known as “Fix It, Black Girl,” that includes Drake and different performers.

Hannah Drake is printed on the metropolis’s cultural life. “There is a fierceness, a beauty, a joyful spirit in her work,” mentioned Robert Barry Fleming, govt creative director of Actors Theatre of Louisville.Credit…Andrew Cenci for The New York TimesJosh Miller is co-founder and chief govt officer of IDEAS xLab and Drake’s accomplice within the (Un)Known Project. “It’s particularly important to identify the names of enslaved Kentuckians,” he mentioned, “and to help connect people to their ancestors and their heritage.”Credit…Andrew Cenci for The New York Times

When she unveils the (Un)Known Project subsequent weekend it’s going to embody that fierceness and pleasure that Fleming talks about. Drake, Miller and a giant group of individuals plan to stroll from Roots 101 to the river for meals and music. And lastly, they’ll arrive on the newly put in benches. There, Drake plans to learn from her poem “Finding Me,” which says partly:

Can I discover items of your reminiscence in cotton fields and pink mud?
Scattered bones in unmarked graves
that tried to erase you from historical past?
But you had been right here,
You had been all the time right here. You existed.
Unknown, now not.
I discovered your title. I discovered you.
And to find you, I discovered me.

“In finding you, I found me,”  Drake wrote in a poem.  The (Un)Known Project is sited alongside the waterfront close to the George Rogers Clark Memorial Bridge crossing the Ohio River between Louisville and Jeffersonville, Indiana.Credit…Andrew Cenci for The New York Times

It is a poem about slavery, after all. But it carries echoes of Breonna Taylor and #sayhername and the efforts to push injustices into the sunshine. And as a lot as Drake’s work is concerning the darkish previous, she is focused on gentle — the sunshine that reveals hidden tales and creates a manner ahead.

Maggie Jones, a native of Louisville, teaches writing on the University of Pittsburgh.