Remembering Zephra May-Miller as Louisville’s African-American History is Celebrated

This weekend, the Kentucky African-American Heritage Center will be the site of “Celebrating the Legacy of Black Louisville,” a three-day event featuring a special film, musical program and displays of history, art and memorabilia. It promises to be a memorable experience, organized by, among others, local historians Ken Clay and Merv Aubespin, authors of “Two Centuries of Black Louisville.” (J.  Blaine Hudson, dean of arts and sciences at the University of Louisville, who died a year ago, was the third co-author.) Both Clay and Aubespin will be at the celebration with their historic photos and copies of their book.

Among the many things to see at this event will be a unique collection of the works of the late Zephra May-Miller, known in Louisville as “the Bag Lady.” Our city has long had its share of eccentrics, but surely Zephra (as everyone called her) was among the oddest. She was also a talented folk artist whose hats, purses, dresses and works of art were made of ordinary plastic bags, beautifully woven into delicate patterns.

Zephra died in 2004 at the age of 62, but she left behind quite a legacy, and also a lot of memories. I sat down earlier this week with sculptor Ed Hamilton in his high-ceilinged studio on South Shelby Street, where he is currently working on a larger than life statue of Martin Luther King Jr. and others for the city of Newport News, Va. In that same space he carved this city’s Lincoln Memorial, which is located on the Ohio River in Waterfront Park.

Ed and Zephra were friends for many years. I asked him how they met. “I think she found me. You know it’s so hard to pinpoint where you hook up with somebody.” But once they did meet, they really connected.

“I often looked on Zephra … like she was John the Baptist,” Hamilton said. “There was nothing that fazed her. I mean if you walked up and you had leprosy, it wouldn’t bother her. Along with her very, very, very used Bible, pig-eared and tattered and torn, that was the book she stood on, the Bible. Hence that became our connection because she obviously saw something in me and made me a prayer partner.”

Many of those who came into contact with Zephra May-Miller encountered her on the streets of the city, most of all in the Smoketown neighborhood just east of downtown. Some would have called her getup outlandish. “Oh yeah! You noticed her,” Hamilton remembered. The unique dresses and the flowing capes she wore were crowned with her plastic hats. She wore shoes that were too large, and she gave them away to people who needed them. And she was never bashful about proselytizing anyone she met on the street, calling out “Do you know the Lord?”

“That’s it,” Hamilton remembered of those encounters. “You know, sometimes I’m thinking, ‘Oh, no, not today, Zeph.’ But each time when I would get into my own funk and she would come around, it would help me to come out of what ever I was into. You know what I’m saying? She was almost like a therapist.”

She was also a tremendous cook, who loved to whip up meals of fried chicken, fish, greens, beans, cabbage and so forth. Often she would bring lunch to Hamilton’s studio, where she ate with him and sometimes with his wife, Bernadette.

In a Courier-Journal feature story, published the year before she died, Adrian Swain of the Kentucky Folk Art Center offered this appraisal: “She developed a really ingenious and innovative way of using a material that you wouldn’t expect to be used, especially in the way that it is used, in the making of art. She’s also a very spiritual individual. She’s warm; she’s outgoing. She’s also very complex.”

In her time, Zephra tooled around Louisville in one of two cars—a 1965 Chevrolet Impala convertible and a white Lincoln stretch limousine, one that Hamilton says did double duty at the funeral home owned by her family. R.G. May & Sons Funeral Home on East Chestnut Street is the oldest black-owned mortuary in Louisville, founded by her great grandfather. In her younger days, Zephra May practiced a different form of art as an undertaker. To a Courier-Journal reporter she declared, “This is our car. This is Jesus’ car.” And she described with tears in her eyes the “whores, the liars, robbers, the dirty people, old people, ugly people” whom she ferried where they needed to go in Jesus’ limo.

In 1991, the city dedicated a Smoketown Monument at the corner of Lampton and Hancock streets. Its two 12-foot stainless steel boxing gloves overlapping in the shape of a heart honor the neighborhood’s spirit and its historic link to boxing. At the boxing program run by the legendary Fred Stone, stars such as Muhammad Ali and Jimmy Ellis began their careers.

That’s Zephra’s most visible local landmark, but the collection that will be on display this weekend gives a sense of how truly versatile she was. And as the kickoff for this year’s Black History Month celebration in Louisville, it’s a fitting way to remember one of our city’s most … well, almost indescribable personalities.

“She was just so different from … our standard friends who come and go,” concluded Ed Hamilton. “She was just a different personality. You just never forgot her. You met her and you never forgot her.”

“Celebrating the Legacy of Black Louisville” will be held at the Kentucky Center for African-American Heritage, 1701 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd. The exhibits, including items from Zephra May-Miller, are free and open to the public. The show opens with a reception Friday evening at 6 p.m. For more information, visit the Heritage Center website.

Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal.

He’ll discuss this commentary at about 1:30 p.m. during Here & Now.

Read his past WFPL commentaries here.

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