A crane hoisted a bench high in the air Friday afternoon, as a crew of three guided it toward its permanent home on a newly laid concrete slab by the Ohio River.
The limestone and granite bench is emblazoned with names: “Aggy, Dan, Maria, Sam, UnKnown.”
These were enslaved Kentuckians, and this is one of two seats that are a part of a new public artwork, a memorial to Black people, whose names or stories would have otherwise been lost in history.
This memorial, “On the Banks of Freedom,” is a part of IDEAS xLab’s (Un)Known Project, a collaboration with Roots 101, the Frazier History Museum and Louisville Metro.
On Saturday, in commemoration of Juneteenth, there was poetry and performances at Roots 101, followed by a community walk down to the river for the unveiling of the memorial.
For writer and poet Hannah Drake, the piece is a way to say to these individuals: you existed and you mattered. Drake is IDEAS xLab’s chief creative officer and a driving force behind this project.
One of her biggest influences was a trip to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the National Lynching Memorial, in Alabama. The site includes hundreds of six-foot tall beams inscribed with names of lynching victims. Drake said walking through those was an emotional experience.
“I was just determined to take a picture of every pillar that said Kentucky,” she said, recounting that experience. “And there were a lot of names; Kentucky, you did that?”
A number of pillars at the site in Alabama said, “Unknown.”
“I just knew we’re gonna do an unknown project,” Drake said. “I just knew that we were because I cannot believe someone existed in the world and nobody knew they had a name at some point.”
Drake also visited historic homes in Kentucky and Mississippi, and Freedomland Cemetery in New Albany, Indiana, just across the river. And an unsettling pattern kept coming up: so many Black people were documented as if they were a piece of property without their names, or there was no record at all of who that person was, Drake said.
This project would be a testament to all of their lives, and the site of the Ohio River holds significance as a place for these individuals might have once stood, looking toward southern Indiana and the possibility of freedom.
Drake was adamant that “this is the right project for this city.” Her colleague Josh Miller, IDEAS xLab co-founder and chief executive officer, agreed.
“It was one of those things where the planning started before COVID, before all of the protests,” Miller said. “The timing was overdue already, but then it was like, this is the right time.”
William M. Duffy is the lead artist on the benches.
Along with the names, Duffy also sandblasted quotes into the benches’ granite backs, as well as portraits: the face of a man on one and the face of a woman on the other.
“They’re composites of different African people,” he said. “We don’t know what that unknown person looked like, what his name was. So I’ve just called from different areas to create a sense of, well, it could have been my grandfather or my great, great, great grandfather.”
Duffy also adorned one of the benches with the African symbol of the Sankofa bird, reaching its head back gracefully toward a piece of food.
“It says that it’s okay to go back and pick up something that you have forgotten. So that’s kind of the significance of this whole project,” he said. “We’re reaching back now because these are things that have been forgotten — so it’s okay to reach back and bring it forward.”
Louisville artist Dave Caudill, who has been working alongside Duffy to construct the benches, pointed toward shackles around the steel legs of the benches. The chain has been broken, “to symbolize the escape,” he said.
“There are opportunities to do a lot more,” Caudill continued. “All over the city there could be benches or markers or whatever, because I think people who don’t ordinarily think of these issues need to confront them.”
IDEAS xLab will donate the artwork to the city.
Public art administrator, Sarah Lindgren, said “On the Banks of Freedom” is “a significant addition to the city’s public art collection.”
“We are proud to be a part of the project and we congratulate all of the artists and partners for creating this artwork and sharing it with our community,” Lindgren said in a statement sent to WFPL.
Hannah Drake and Josh Miller hope to expand the project’s reach throughout Kentucky and across the river to Indiana.
But right now, Drake has been taking in the experience of watching the physical artwork become a reality after years of planning for it. She teared up when she first saw the granite bench backs earlier this month.
“You have a right to be emotional,” artist Dave Caudill told her. “This is coming out of your dream. It’s an ambitious one and a great one.”