Cans of black paint and large sheets of white paper lay scattered around the 4th floor of the Roots 101 African American History Museum in Louisville.
Brianna Wright walks across one of those blank sheets, the soles of her feet coated in the black paint. Each step leaves a black footprint on the paper.
Those footprints, her footprints, will be incorporated into a new public artwork, a memorial to Black people whose names or stories haven’t been properly recorded in the history books.
“It’s an important project to document parts of my ancestors’ history. And I would love to be able to bring their history and their legacy to the forefront and be a part of my history, my legacy,” Wright said.
“We’re going to scan these footprints into the computer and lay them out as if they were… wandering along the river like a family,” IDEAS xLab co-founder and CEO Josh Miller says of the soon-to-be sandblasted footprints.
The footprint designs will be sandblasted into a sidewalk-like installation, creating a path leading toward the Ohio River, where Black people who were enslaved once looked across to Southern Indiana at the possibility of freedom.
Accompanying the footprints will be limestone benches. Miller says they’ll select an artist to design the benches next month.
The “(Un)Known Project” is a collaboration with Roots 101 and the Frazier History Museum. IDEAS xLab’s chief creative officer, Hannah Drake, has been a driving force on the project, infusing her personal experience into much of it.
“It feels good to see something that was in your head,” Drake says, looking down at several sheets of footprints. “And all of the people are picked specifically, like that was not by happenstance that it’s these four people,” she says.
The connection with Brianna Wright being that she’s Drake’s daughter. Wright is also a community organizer and ran a successful campaign for Jecorey Arthur’s Metro Council bid earlier this year.
Malik Barker is a grandchild of the late University of Louisville educator J. Blaine Hudson, who was a leading figure in Louisville’s Black community.
As Barker scrubs the black paint from the bottom of his right foot, he describes participating in this project as an “unusual” experience.
For 19-year-old Nigel Blackburn, his family name holds significance.
Lucie and Thornton Blackburn were a Black couple who fled Kentucky in the 1830s, and went on to build a successful business in Canada. Their story was a huge inspiration for the project.
Nigel Blackburn says it’s “unknown” whether he’s related to them, but he feels connected to their story and is glad to be a part of this.
“I felt like it’s somewhere in my bloodline and, like each day, that inspires me,” he says. “I used to get picked on for my last name when I was younger. But you know, growing up… just seeing the history that the name has, is beautiful to me.”
Elmer Lucille Allen was the first Black chemist hired by Brown-Forman in the 1960s.
Now in her late 80s, she’s also contributing her footprints to the (Un)Known Project.
“I think it’s a good project,” says Allen, who is also an artist. “And I think there’s maybe something that needed to have been done years ago.”
Now that it is being done, she hopes it will last for centuries.