Thursday, November 08, 2012

Laura Webb: Landmarks and Memory - On the "When separate is not equal” bus

Landmarks and Memory: On the “When separate is not equal” bus
By Laura Webb
North of Center

On the afternoon of Saturday, October 13, NoC’s Film Department and I went willingly to a type of space we usually avoid: a church parking lot. Granted, we were not there in search of eternal salvation (much to my relatives’ disappointment, I’m sure), but instead as attendants of the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice’s bus tour of Historic Lexington, part of its ongoing “Voices” event series. The theme of this year’s series, “When Separate is Not Equal: Yesterday and Today,” focused on segregation and the struggle for civil rights.

From African American enclaves such as Kincaidtown (now known as the East End) to more recent inconsistencies in downtown restoration and development, Lexington has a long history of creating segregated spaces. Official area histories tend to recognize, and city revitalization efforts tend to prioritize, the upkeep and maintenance of spaces coded white and upper-class, often directly at the expense of black neighborhoods, landmarks and histories.

To cite one example, the popular Cheapside park — home to the recently developed Fifth Third Bank Pavilion and the substantial Lexington Farmer’s Market, as well as other well-publicized events — features prominent statues lauding two Kentucky Confederates, John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge. In revitalizing the area, the Breckinridge statue was moved to an even more prominent location abutting Main Street. Meanwhile, the square’s historical role as a slave market was only overtly acknowledged with a historical marker in 2003, and even then this marker is effectively hidden behind the old courthouse and beneath a tree. (It goes without saying that the plaque was left untouched during the recent renovation that moved the Breckenridge statue.)

Given the general lack of citywide interest in acknowledging landmarks important to Lexington’s African American community, a tour focused specifically on black landmarks about town naturally drew my attention. I was far from disappointed. Our guide, Yvonne Giles (founder and director of the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum Gallery), amazed me with her depth and breadth of knowledge.

Wiping the landscape

As our new hybrid bus departed from First African Baptist Church, Giles began to outline the processes that would recurrently arise throughout the tour. Historically, black spaces such as hospitals and cemeteries were physically separated from white ones. As the city developed over time, important black spaces have been lost even as corresponding white spaces have been preserved.

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