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On a Kentucky riverbank, a path to remembrance
Lamont Collins, founder of the Roots 101 African American Museum, holds a ledger that includes the sales of enslaved people from an Indiana port in Louisville, Ky., April 27, 2021. Hannah Drake’s (Un)Known Project in Louisville is both a memorial to enslaved people whose stories will never be uncovered, and a challenge to unearth narratives hidden in attics and archives. Andrew Cenci/The New York Times

by Maggie Jones

LOUISVILLE (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Sometimes Hannah Drake stands at the banks of the Ohio River in Louisville, closes her eyes and tries to conjure the faces and stories of enslaved women, men and children who stood on that same land. What were they dreaming of as they looked across the river — just a mile wide in some places, far less in others — to Indiana, toward freedom? How many made the attempt to escape by disguising themselves and hiding away on a boat, by crossing on a skiff in the dark of night or on foot on narrower parts of the river when it froze? How many made it?

Drake, a spoken-word poet, visual artist, author and activist who has been a central voice in the Breonna Taylor protest movement, began thinking several years ago about the lost and the thin narratives of enslaved Louisvillians when she visited Natchez, Mississippi, and its Museum of African American History and Culture.

One wall featured a map showing the slavery route from Louisville, down the Ohio River to the Mississippi River, to Natchez, one of the largest slave-trading cities in the United States. She also saw the names of dozens of enslaved men, women and children shipped from Kentucky to Natchez. By the 1850s, Kentucky was one of the leading states exporting people to the Deep South — about 2,500 to 4,000 a year, according to Patrick A. Lewis, director of collections and research at the Filson Historical Society in the city.

“I knew Louisville was instrumental in the slave trade,” Drake, who was born in Colorado and cannot trace her own family history back more than two generations, told me recently. “I didn’t know how intricate and deep.”

Not long after that trip, Drake walked among the rusted steel pillars hanging at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Each pillar included the name of a U.S. county where racial terror lynchings took place and listed the victims’ names. Drake had assumed she would find a handful from Kentucky: There were 65 pillars and 169 names. Among them, eight victims had no name. Those lynchings were recorded in public records without identifying details; pillars list the victims simply as “unknown.” Before Drake left the museum that day, she bought a notebook and wrote two words: Unknown Project.

On June 19, Juneteenth, Drake and her work partner, Josh Miller (together they run an arts organization called IDEAS xLab) will officially dedicate the (Un)Known Project. The multimedia artwork is both a remembrance and a provocation — a memorial to those whose stories will never be uncovered, as well as a challenge to the public to unearth narratives that may exist but are hidden in archives, in attics, in family genealogies, in corporate histories. The hope is to help shift those narratives from the category of “forgotten” to “known.”

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

Drake, 44, who was in her 20s when she moved to Louisville with her daughter, Brianna, is blunt, warm, funny and extremely busy.

In addition to her day job as chief creative officer at IDEAS xLab, she has written and performed poetry with the Louisville Ballet, as well as the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The National Academy of Medicine featured her poem “Spaces” in an exhibition about health equity. In 2019, her clever and piercing video “All You Had to Do Is Play the Game, Boy,” about Colin Kaepernick, captured millions of views and praise 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 and learning complex in Louisville’s largely Black West End neighborhood.

The first component of Drake and Miller’s multiphase (Un)Known Project is two benches that will sit atop a platform between 9th and 10th streets, angled toward each other and overlooking the Ohio River. Both benches are made of granite, limestone and steel.

William M. Duffy, the lead artist, collaborated with sculptor Dave Caudill on the design, with input from the community, project partners and IDEAS xLab. Engraved into the backs of the benches are the words “We are descendants of kings and queens who were enslaved in America” from Lamont Collins, founder of Roots 101 African American History Museum here. Other words are from 13-year-old Sage Snyder, a student who is 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 images of a woman and man, inspired by photos and artworks of enslaved people, sit in the center. Wrapped around the legs are metal chains with shackles broken open. On the bench platform is Drake’s poem “Finding Me.”

“When people sit here,” Drake said one afternoon, as we stood near where the memorial will be installed, “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.”

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 knows exactly how many enslaved people made it across the river into Indiana and onward to freedom, but the Louisville area was a key crossing site. Based on a fugitive-slave database and lost-property reports, between 1850 and 1860, hundreds of people escaped Kentucky every year (many were likely recaptured), according to historian J. Blaine Hudson in “Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland.” (Until his death in 2013, Hudson was professor of pan-African studies at the University of Louisville.)

To conjure images of enslaved people heading to the river, the (Un)Known Project will feature four sets of footprints representing the path of a family — two adults and two children. The prints will be sandblasted into a new sidewalk for several blocks along the waterfront leading to the benches, as part of the city’s upgrades that will also include a bike and pedestrian path and more green space.

Another component of their project, funded by the Ford Foundation and other groups, is the Floating Reconciliation Experience. It will take place on the Belle of Louisville, the oldest operating steamboat in the United States, which holds 800 passengers and is docked not far from the benches. The boat trips, which are expected to begin in 2022, will feature experiential theater and events related to the antebellum South.

Next year, both the Frazier History Museum and Roots 101 will feature exhibitions tied to the project, including one that recounts the story of Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, a Louisville couple who escaped their enslavers, landing in Detroit, where they were imprisoned by slave catchers and sentenced to be returned to Kentucky. The Blackburns escaped once again and eventually reached Canada, where Thornton started a taxi service.

As Drake and I talked about the Blackburns one chilly October afternoon, she noted that the couple was one example of Louisville’s failure to reckon with the slavery of its past, a legacy that continues. She and I had met earlier that day at Jefferson Square, the epicenter of the Breonna Taylor movement. Drake had spoken and marched in numerous rallies, reciting her poetry in her sonorous voice. She had been tear-gassed by police and seen numerous friends arrested. She was in the crowd, burying her head in the arms of a friend and weeping before comforting others in the moments after the Kentucky attorney general, Daniel Cameron, announced in September that no officers would be charged in the shooting death of Taylor.

Drake also stood on the steps of Louisville’s City Hall reciting a powerful rendition of her poem “Formation” after the city council voted to ban no-knock warrants. For months, too, Drake was part of an informal group of Black women in their 30s and 40s who were often in the square supporting younger activists and helping them access a sanctuary church after curfews to avoid arrest. The women, as Drake put it, “kept this city from burning.”

When artists and community leaders talk about Drake, they almost inevitably bring up her generosity.

“People don’t realize in addition to going to protests, she’s writing grants during the day and going to these fundraisers and sitting in powerful spaces with people who maybe haven’t had these conversations about race,” said Sidney Monroe, a theater professor at the University of Louisville and the creative director of the Floating Reconciliation Experience.

Indeed, Drake is often the only Black person in the homes of the wealthiest white Louisvillians, reciting her poetry and giving talks about race, gender and politics. On the streets, strangers come up to thank her, and talk about Louisville’s race issues.

She is imprinted on the city. When many downtown restaurants and businesses boarded up their doors and windows last summer after protests, KMAC, a contemporary art museum, started a program called “Words Not Boards,” with Drake’s poem “Dawn” featured across three towering windows. Among her other art projects was a 2018 installation that featured a pile of cotton and re-creations of cotton-picking bags on which she screenprinted poetry and silhouettes of herself, her mother (who picked cotton as a child) and other women.

“There is a fierceness, a beauty, a joyful spirit in her work,” said Robert Barry Fleming, executive artistic director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. “She creates pieces of resilient joy.”

Last year Fleming asked Drake to curate a collection of poetry and song for an online performance called “Fix It, Black Girl,” featuring Drake and other performers.

When she unveils the (Un)Known Project next weekend it will include that fierceness and joy that Fleming talks about. Drake, Miller and a large group of people plan to walk from Roots 101 to the river for food and music. And finally, they will arrive at the newly installed benches. There, Drake plans to read from her poem “Finding Me,” which says in part:

Can I find pieces of your memory in cotton fields and red mud?

Scattered bones in unmarked graves

that attempted to erase you from history?

But you were here,

You were always here. You existed.

Unknown, no longer.

I found your name. I found you.

And in finding you, I found me.

It is a poem about slavery, of course. But it carries echoes of Breonna Taylor and #sayhername and the efforts to push injustices into the light. And as much as Drake’s work is about the dark past, she is interested in light — the light that reveals hidden stories and creates a way forward.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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