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'Somebody Knew Them': New Monument Will Honor '(Un)Known' Enslaved People

Standing on the banks of the Ohio River looking from Kentucky across to southern Indiana, poet and author Hannah Drake thinks about the enslaved people who stood here more than a century ago.

"What did they do when they weren't working tobacco fields or hemp fields? When they wanted to escape to Indiana, what were they dreaming about?" she wonders.

Kentucky claimed neutrality during the Civil War, but it was a slave state. Freedom lay on the other side of the river.

"It's just right there, you can see it," Drake says. "If you just get across, then hopefully your entire life could be different."

Nearby, a stretch of grass shaded by trees is the future site of a public art piece — a monument to Black people who were enslaved. It's part of something called the (Un)Known Project, from Louisville artist-run nonprofit IDEAS xLab, where Drake is chief creative officer.

The memorial will start as a path of cast or carved footprints. That will lead people from nearby history museums to the river, where there will be limestone benches. Then there will be more footprints leading to the river's edge.

"We wanted people to come here and sit and just acknowledge some things," Drake says. "If you sit on the bench for five minutes, or you sit on the bench for five hours, I think seeing it will stir up something."

Drake says the project has many influences, including a visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the National Lynching Memorial in Alabama. The site includes more than 800 six-foot tall hanging beams — inscribed with names of lynching victims.

"But on these pillars, they also stamp the word unknown," says Drake. "So there are people that were lynched, that they just don't know the names of them. ... It just broke my heart, like, how could someone be here and be unknown? Somebody knew them."

Drake also visited former plantations in Kentucky and Mississippi.

"Sadly, it is always the same story," she says. "We don't have their names or their names weren't written down as a name. They were a property so they were written down as a thing. So this is not Hannah. This is a negro gal."

The (Un)Known Project is for all of them.

"This was our way to say we acknowledge that you were here. You existed, and we recognize that," Drake says.

It's also for enslaved people whose names might be known, but their stories aren't. Lucie and Thornton Blackburn escaped from Kentucky by way of the Ohio River and went on to build a successful taxi cab business in Canada.

Rachel Platt — director of community engagement at Louisville's Frazier History Museum, one of several partners on the (Un)Known Project — says she only recently learned about the Blackburns.

"How do we not know their story?" Platt asks. "What other stories are out there? And what are we missing as part of our history that we don't know about?"

It was Platt who reached out to Hannah Drake and IDEAS xLab about the Blackburns. Drake says she'd never heard about them before, and in reading more about them, she came across the following phrase: "Anything else about them is virtually unknown." There was that word again: unknown. Drake says everything kind of clicked together then.

The plan is to install the benches and the footprints of (Un)Known Project artwork along the Ohio River in 2021. Coinciding with that, the Frazier and Roots 101 African-American History Museumin Louisville will host exhibitions to help tell lesser known stories like the Blackburns and formerly enslaved Black people.

"Legacies matter," says, Lamont Collins, founder of Roots 101. "We were the bulldozers before bulldozers, we were the back hammers before back hammers, and we the engineers before engineering degrees, and that's the beautiful thing about the (Un)Known Project. You can take all that history and bring it out in so many ways."

The project has been in the works for more than a year, but there's added resonance at this moment because of Breonna Taylor's death in Louisville.

"I feel with Breonna Taylor and the whole say her name campaign, it's the very same thing." Drake says. "That you have a young woman whose name would have surely been forgotten from history unless people started speaking her name over and over again."

The plan is to install the benches and the footprints of (Un)Known Project artwork along the Ohio River next year.

Copyright 2020 Louisville Public Media

Stephanie Wolf