Civil Rights activist Marcus Garvey once said, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Were Garvey alive today, he would likely commend the efforts of several Kentucky communities that are allowing those roots to flourish.
From Russellville to Lexington and points beyond, our communities are telling more diverse stories about our past, even when that history is difficult.
Civil War enthusiasts know Russellville as the site where secessionist Kentuckians established a provisional state government that supported the Confederacy. Although Kentucky’s rebel governors never held any power, their efforts, in terms of the Bluegrass State’s Civil War story, put Russellville on the map.
In the early 20th century, however, a darker episode cast a shadow across this town’s history.
On August 1, 1908, four African American men — John Jones, Virgil Jones, Joe Riley and John Boyer — were lynched. The men had been charged with several crimes, including breach of the peace and unlawful assembly. They were likely murdered, however, for supporting the case of Rufus Browder, a local African American who shot and killed a white man while defending himself. The lynchings were also an attempt to break up African American lodges in the area that could potentially wield political power.
After the men were lynched, a photograph of their dead, hanging bodies was even turned into a postcard.
It is a terrible, painful story that highlights a grim chapter from Kentucky’s past. Residents, however, are tackling this history head on by interpreting the incident at the West Kentucky African American Heritage Center in Russellville.
Space dedicated to the lynching details the power that history can have upon us. In an interview with the Bowling Green Daily News, Michael Morrow, the creator of the exhibit, said, “People break down and cry, some get down on their knees and pray quietly. This experience affects so many people in so many ways.”
Lexington is also interpreting our state’s diverse and sometimes painful history.
“Together Lexington,” a private organization comprised of 19 business and civic leaders, raised $75,000 to install 12 interpretive signs that highlight prominent people and places connected to the city’s African American history.
These interpretive signs also include difficult stories, one of which commemorates the 1900 murder of R. C. O. Benjamin, a black attorney and newspaper editor slain after confronting a white poll worker who was preventing African Americans from voting.
Rufus Friday, former publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader and a member of Together Lexington, said that, “Understanding this history — good and bad — will help Lexington understand its past and move forward together in the future.”
Some of Kentucky’s most iconic places are also diversifying the stories that they tell.
My Old Kentucky Home in Bardstown is broadening their interpretation to include the history of slavery at that site. In addition to new interpretive signage, guided tours now discuss the role of enslaved African Americans at the house made famous by Stephen Foster’s song.
The Kentucky Historical Society (KHS) is also working to ensure that our organization tells a more inclusive story.
Past grants we have received, including one that examined Jewish and African American history in Hopkinsville, have enabled us to expand our collection. More recently, KHS worked with community members in Lexington to install the state’s first two historical markers dedicated to LGBTQ history. Moreover, on September 6, we hosted an important panel discussion called “Creating Community: Lessons from Kentucky’s African American History.”
We understand, however, that much more work needs to be done, both in our organization and across the state.
An important step forward is a $245,000 grant that the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) just awarded to KHS. This federal grant will fund professional development experiences for our staff aimed at prioritizing diversity and inclusion in all facets of our work. Eventually, this training will allow us to assist other history organizations as they interpret difficult historical topics for their own audiences.
“We are not makers of history,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., once said. “We are made by history.”
Sometimes this history, as the recent work in Russellville and Lexington attests, is painful. But that doesn’t mean that these stories shouldn’t be told. Instead, all communities should work to understand and interpret our difficult past. Only then can we more fully confront our current and future challenges.
Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s History Advocate. He also hosts the “History Advocate” video series on the KHS YouTube channel.