Arts and Culture

Locust Grove, the 55-acre historic site in Louisville, reopened to its members Thursday and will reopen to the general public Friday.

The property , which includes a circa 1792 Georgian mansion, green space and outbuildings, had been closed to the public for more than four months because of the pandemic. 

Marketing and communications director Hannah Zimmerman said they’re following local, state and federal guidance to keep guests, staff and volunteers safe, and have reduced the facility’s hours from seven days a week to just five. Advance registration is required.

“Social distancing is always required, six feet apart from anyone who is not in your household, that includes staff and volunteers,” Zimmerman said, adding that all staff and volunteers must wear masks and guests are required to wear masks indoors and encouraged to do so outdoors. 

“An added bonus” of the Locust Grove property is that, being a historic site, it’s already standard policy to ask people not to touch most of the artifacts and surfaces. 

“We’ve had to remove some of the more tactile elements from our gallery and from some of our outbuildings,” Zimmerman said. “But if this were summer 2019, I would still be telling people, ‘Please don’t touch the historic handrail. The oils on your hands damage it.’”

There’s another benefit from the pandemic lockdown situation, Zimmerman said. Hitting pause on tours and public visitation gave them time to focus on increasing online offerings, including a how-to video series for centuries-old techniques, digital “Living Room Lecture” series and virtual happy hours centered on regional spirits.

And it’s allowed more time for the site to dig deeper into its years-long effort to re-center the lives of the enslaved people at Locust Grove.

If you don’t include slavery in the presentation or storytelling around a site like Locust Grove “you are falsifying history,” executive director Carol Ely said.

“And unless you talk about the lives of the enslaved people, you are perpetuating the injustices that erased their stories in the first place,” she said. 

Months of protests against racial injustices and police violence against Black people, as well as COVID-19, accelerated the effort at Locust Grove . 

“People are opening their eyes, and opening their hearts and minds, and asking questions, ready to have a conversation,” Ely said via email. “The pandemic upended all assumptions, making an opening to see and do things differently, and time out of the routine to do the background work.”

“The uprising provides the urgency,” she said.

One way Locust Grove is bringing the stories of the enslaved people to the forefront is the recreation of a “slave dwelling.” The physical work of inventorying and moving items began early this year. The hope is it will immerse visitors in the lives of these individuals.

Other parts of this larger effort include historical re-enactments featuring local Black actors and students from the African American Theatre Program at the University of Louisville, curriculum development and finding descendants of enslaved people at Locust Grove, Ely said.

“Because of the pandemic, our ideas may end up in a different form than we assumed at the start, but we are committed to finding ways to continue to ‘say their names’ in the meantime,” Ely said.

Andrea Meriwether has been one of the researchers working on these efforts with Locust Grove. She’s the chief curator with Barfare Concepts, as well as a bourbon expert and historical curator. She said she had been pulling together “historical findings” for another project and that “led me to Locust Grove.”

“Where I found that… the slaves were very much involved in production there of American whiskey, brandy and other spirits,” she said.

It’s been a “lengthy process,” pulling together physical documents, Meriwether said, giving a nod to one of her collaborators on this effort, volunteer and researcher Heather Hiner, who has been digging into this for about seven years. But during the quieter months, they were able to “focus on how we would bring the narrative of the enslaved people to life, not just to focus solely on their labor, but their experience as humans.” 

“We want people to look at them as human beings, as craftsmen, as people that you can relate to,” she said. “We want the stories to really evoke conversations that bring us together versus tearing us apart.”

Earlier this year, Meriwether connected with a descendant of an enslaved individual who was at Locust Grove. She hopes to “create a very strong descendant community that sets the stage for other historic properties within Kentucky.”

“Descendants really hold the keys to a lot of things that we need to make these stories complete,” she said. She’d like to digitize some of her research to make it more accessible to the public. 

It’s important for Americans to understand these stories, especially the ones that make people uncomfortable, because it “creates a space for us to really sit down for a moment and reflect on the ills of America,” Meriwether said. 

But there’s still a lot of research and work to be done, she added.

“I want people to leave Locust Grove really changed, and thinking about race and culture and the journey of enslaved people in a new light,” she said.

Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.