Poet and author Hannah Drake stands near the banks of the Ohio River, looking from Kentucky across to southern Indiana. Drake, who is Black, thinks about the enslaved people who stood here more than a century ago.
“You wonder what did they do when they weren’t working tobacco fields or hemp fields?” she says. “When they wanted to escape to Indiana, what were they dreaming about?”
Kentucky claimed neutrality during the Civil War, but it was a slave state. On the far side of the river was essentially freedom.
“It’s just right there, you can see it,” Drake says, her mind still on those individuals. “If you [could] just get across, then hopefully your entire life could be different.”
A nearby stretch of grass shaded by a few trees is the future site of a public art piece, a memorial dedicated to Black people whose names have been lost to history. It’s part of something called the (Un)Known Project, from Louisville artist-run nonprofit IDEAS xLab, where Drake is the chief creative officer.
The memorial will start as a path of cast or carved footprints that will lead people from nearby history museums to the river, where there will be limestone benches, and then more footprints leading to the river’s edge.
“We wanted people to come here and sit. and just acknowledge some things,” Drake says. “And if you sit on the bench for five minutes, or you sit on the bench for five hours, I think seeing it will stir up something,” she said. “That’s my hope.”
Drake says the project has many influences, including her own family background and her experiences as a Black woman in America. But a visit to the The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, known to many as the National Lynching Memorial, in Montogomery, Alabama in 2018 was particularly significant.
The multi-acre site includes more than 800 six-foot tall beams, each for every county in the U.S. where a “racial terror lynching” occurred, inscribed with names of lynching victims.
Drake says, on those individual monuments, she also saw the word “unknown.”
“So, there are people that were lynched, that they just don’t know the names of them,” she says. “It just broke my heart like how could someone be here and be unknown, somebody knew them.”
Other research included trips to the Town Clock Church, which was like a beacon of freedom to those trying to cross the river, and Freedomland Cemetery in New Albany, Indiana, just across the river. The latter being a site where Black people were buried from the 1850s to the early 20th Century, where many graves today are marked merely by numbers.
Drake also traveled to former plantations in Kentucky and Mississippi, where, she says, she noticed an upsetting pattern.
“Sadly, it is always the same story,” Drake says. “We don’t have their names or their names weren’t written down as a name. They were a property so they were written down as a thing. So, this is not Hannah. This is a Negro gal.”
The (Un)Known Project is for all of these individuals.
“This was our way to say we acknowledge that you were here, you existed, and we recognize that,” Drake says full of emotion.
It’s also for enslaved people whose names might be known, but their stories aren’t — like Lucie and Thornton Blackburn. They escaped from Kentucky by way of the Ohio River. And went on to build a successful taxi cab business in Canada.
Rachel Platt is the director of community engagement at Louisville’s Frazier History Museum, one of several partners on the (Un)Known Project. She says she only recently learned about the Blackburns.
“How do we not know their story?” Platt says. “What other stories are out there? And what are we missing as part of our history that we don’t know about?”
It was Platt who reached out to Hannah Drake and IDEAS xLab about the Blackburns. Drake says she’d never heard about them before, and in reading more about them, she came across the following phrase: “Anything else about them is virtually unknown.” There was that word again: unknown. Drake says everything kind of clicked together then.
“It really reiterated this whole idea of some of the names we know, but we don’t know their stories, and some of the people we know existed, but we don’t even know their names,” IDEAS xLab co-founder and CEO Josh Miller said.
The plan is to install the benches and the footprints of the (Un)Known Project artwork along the Ohio River in 2021 — there’s also some talks about collaborating with artists or groups in Southern Indiana to install benches on their side of the river. Coinciding with that, the Frazier and Roots 101 African American History Museum in Louisville will host exhibitions to help tell lesser known stories like the Blackburns and formerly enslaved Black people.
“Legacies matter,” Lamont Collins, founder of Roots 101, says.
“We were the bulldozers before bulldozers, we were the back hammers before back hammers, and we the engineers before engineering degrees, and that’s the beautiful thing about the (Un)Known Project. You can take all that history and bring it out in so many ways.”
Josh Miller says they hope artist selection, additional planning and conceptualization will happen in the fall.
The project has been in the works for more than a year, but there’s added resonance at this moment because of the killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Hannah Drake says.
“I feel with Breonna Taylor and the whole say her name campaign, it’s the very same thing.” Drake says. “That you have a young woman whose name would have surely been forgotten from history unless people started speaking her name over and over again.”