Back in Black
As February comes to a close, the month long recognition of Black History Month is also winding down; a month that has seen plays, talks, and exhibits around Lexington all sharing a common denominator-the contributions of African Americans to American culture and society.
This year, however, the party's not quite over.
The University of Kentucky African-American Studies and Research Program and the Lexington History Museum have just announced an inspiring new project that will portray visually, through historically significant photography, the varied experiences of African Americans in the Bluegrass during segregation.
"In Black and White: A Photographic Collection of African Americans in the Bluegrass" seeks to educate Kentuckians about the segregation era history of Central Kentucky and the people who lived through it.
With the help of UK undergraduate research assistants and funding by a grant from the Kentucky Humanities Council and National Endowment for the Humanities, the project leaders have just begun their daunting task of collecting, researching, and analyzing photographs that will stem from all walks of life during the time of segregation. Gerald Smith, director of the UK African-American Studies and Research Program noted that the "project allows us to provide that visual history of the Bluegrass."
Ed Houlihan, executive director of the Lexington History Museum (a relatively new organization without a home until 2004) sees the project as a unique new method of reaching a significantly untapped topic of local interest. Houlihan noted that the museum had been considering different avenues to build interest in the history of Lexington and found that in areas where current information is limited, the visual record of Central Kentucky, particularly for minorities of all races, remained relatively unamassed. Organizers hope to discover historically significant photographs featuring clubs and local organizations as well as special occasion photos that would have been taken at schools, in segregated parks, or during holidays.
The search for photographs, however, is not limited to African American attics or church records. The project leaders feel strongly that many untapped resources lie in old pictures taken by predominantly white households. Smith stresses that all members of the community can and should participate in this project since many scarce glimpses of the African American experience have been inadvertently captured in photos of white families.
As Smith explains, "It might be a photo of a child playing, but in the background is an African American woman caring for the child." When Ed Houlihan began a personal search through his own visual records from this time, he came across a photograph of his great-great grandfather with his family from the late 1800s. Taken on Constitution Street, the photo includes an unidentified African American women. Houlihan rationalizes that while she must have been an employee of his family, she was important enough to include in a family photograph, "even if a bit to the back."
Another interesting facet of this collection may be the unearthing of early photographs taken by Marvin and Morgan Smith, two of the most recognized pioneers in African American photography in the first part of the twentieth century. Many Lexingtonians (despite the documentary) don't realize that the Smiths are originally from the Bluegrass and went on to critical acclaim in New York City for their significant photographic contributions.
"A local Smith photograph, alone, would be a find well worth the effort," said Houlihan.
The search for photographs will go on from April until June with the exhibit scheduled to open sometime this fall. In order to collect these photos, project leaders are planning to hold numerous "photo fairs" where owners can have their photographs evaluated and then copied or scanned on site. Interviews will be conducted to attain as much pertinent information as possible about each piece. The dates for these fairs will be announced in late March through local media and community organizations.
The final collection will be displayed locally but may also be available on-line. There is already talk about making this into a state wide project if local interest proves to be as enthusiastic as hoped.
When asked why he chose to become so active in this project, Ed Houlihan answered simply, "It is exactly the kind of diverse effort a truly world class local historic museum ought to undertake."
Volunteers are needed to assist in the photo fairs. For more information or if interested in participating, please call Ed Houlihan at (859) 335.6637 (LexingtonHistory@aol.com) or Gerald Smith at (859) 257.3593 (firstname.lastname@example.org).