A Name, Explained: A Juneteenth celebration

Jul 12, 2021 | Community, Giving Back

Hannah Drake and Josh Miller, who are both with IDEAS xLab, embrace at the dedication ceremony for the first public art installation of the (Un)Known Project. They began work on (Un)Known Project in 2019 and plan to include other public art installations in the future.

Our names are powerful. They give us identity and distinction. But as I think about the history of slavery in this country, I believe a name is also synonymous with freedom. For slaves, losing their biological names represented an immediate loss of independence because they were under ownership and didn’t have the freedom to coexist.

I was reminded of this when I attended the On the Banks of Freedom dedication ceremony last month as part of our city’s Juneteenth Jubilee Celebration. It is the first public art installation of (Un)Known Project led by Hannah Drake, Chief Creative Officer, and Josh Miller, Co-founder and CEO, of IDEAS xLab, a nonprofit organization of queer, Black and female artists who champion inclusion and belonging through creativity, art and action.

The On the Banks of Freedom art installation features the footprints of four Black local residents: Elmer Lucille Allen, Brianna Wright, who is Hannah’s daughter, Nigel Blackburn and Malik Barker.

The purpose of (Un)Known Project is to recognize the known and unknown names of enslaved African Americans in Kentucky whose identities were ignored and forgotten. IDEAS xLab collaborated with Roots 101 African American Museum, Frazier Museum, and Louisville Metro Government with the intent of creating a dedicated space for Black people focused on this history.

When I arrived at Roots 101 African American Museum where the event began, I watched groups of young Black kids passionately sing songs with a message of celebrating their heritage. Everyone, including myself — bobbed their heads, waved their hands and happily immersed themselves in the moment.

After the performances, everyone gathered outside in anticipation of the walk we would take from N. 1st St. to the art installation site located between 9th and 10th streets on the riverwalk. We began the walk with the Simmons College Drumline proudly leading us down the streets to much fanfare — and some good music. Traffic slowed as we walked underneath the overpass of I-64 crossing River Road. The people couldn’t take their eyes off of us — and I noticed a driver seat-dancing to the beat as she waited for the traffic to move. We continued our trek and stopped at the Belle of Louisville to watch another performance by Sidney Monroe Williams. “All power to all people. Repeat after me: I am a revolutionary,” she says as she stands on the upper deck of the steamboat. The energy was high, and for the first time in my life, I felt as if I was a part of something much bigger than myself. 

The Simmons College Drumline led the group down the streets to much fanfare.

Attendees in the crowd observe the new art installation and the ceremony surrounding it.

At the entryway of the installation, a poem titled Finding Me, written by Hannah, is inscribed on cement. As I walked onto the semi-circle cement platform, I saw two benches made of steel, limestone and granite with the names of enslaved Kentuckians sandblasted into the granite. William M. Duffy, one of the artists who helped create the installation, hand engraved a portrait on each bench to represent an enslaved woman and man. There is a chain coupled with a broken shackle around the base of each bench to represent the slaves who escaped to freedom.

Along the edge of the platform facing Indiana are six sets of footprints — each paired with the name of an enslaved person from Kentucky. The last set of footprints are identified as unknown, and it made me think about the lost names of my ancestors.

During the dedication ceremony, Hannah discussed the gravity of (Un)Known Project and what it took for she and Josh to make it happen. “I have been envisioning this for years, because it just didn’t sit right with me that somebody could be in the world and be labeled as unknown. At some point, they had a name. Their parents gave them a name, and their name was stolen from them. This was our way of exhuming their bodies and their stories and telling the people their names,” Hannah says. 

William M. Duffy, a sculptor, collaborated with longtime friend and artist Dave Caudill to create the benches. Dave says the rugged textures of the benches are meant to convey the harsh lives these people lived.

She described a conversation between she and a white man she met in Paducah named James. The two had talked about (Un)Known Project, which led to him giving her the names of all of the enslaved Black people his family owned. These are the names that are etched on the benches. “This was my way of letting this state know — particularly white people — that if your family has enslaved Black people, then it is time for you to release the names. Those names are not your names. Those names belong to the Black people who were enslaved that didn’t have the opportunity to have their own name because their names were stolen from them. If you have them, release them. There is no shame in that, because you didn’t do it. The shame is hiding the truth, and the only way this state starts to heal is by admitting the truth,” she says.

I walked away from the event inspired and hopeful for a future where all people can engage in frank conversations about race while working toward building stronger, diverse relationships. Hannah, Josh and Rachel Platt, director of Community Engagement at the Frazier Museum, are committed to using (Un)Known Project as a stepping stone to achieve this goal. “I think that unless you hold up a mirror to the entire past you can’t have truth and reconciliation. And that is what this is to me. I think you have to take a look at the past — the whole past. Not just the parts people want to hear about. I don’t think you can have reconciliation without the fuller story,” Rachel says. I believe this installation represents a new beginning for our city and an opportunity for us to support each other in ways we haven’t in the past. I am excited to see what happens next.

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