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Photographer Finds Kinship With A Black 'Homeplace'

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Photographer Finds Kinship With A Black 'Homeplace'

Photographer Finds Kinship With A Black 'Homeplace'

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Jacki Lyden.

We're going to take you now to an historic place in the bluegrass region of Kentucky, to the hilltops and creek bottoms around Lexington. After the Civil War, freed men, once enslaved, settled nearby to work. Six and seven generations on, their descendants are still here.

Documentary photographer Sarah Hoskins, 48, has for a decade been photographing these people in this still beautiful, still rural area of meandering creeks and steeple grace rises. Communities like Frogtown, Maddoxtown and Clabberbottom used to be called the Negro Hamlets.

We'll start in Zion Hill at Miss Myrtle B's, famous for her Southern staples.

(Soundbite of camera click)

Ms. SARAH HOSKINS (Photographer): Take a picture of these rolls that I know are all coming right to me.

Ms. MYRTLE B. HUGHES: Then I did green beans.

Ms. HOSKINS: For who?

Ms. HUGHES: And then I get corn pudding - I made corn pudding because thats my...

LYDEN: By the time Sarah Hoskins, cameras on each shoulder, comes in clicking away to Miss Myrtle B's kitchen, she's been on the road for seven hours from her home in northern Illinois. Usually, her husband and teenaged daughter are with her. This trip, it's just me. And Miss Myrtle B. Hughes is ready for us with the story of how she came to make her living cooking. Myrtle B is 80.

Ms. HUGHES: When I was 7 years old, I made my first corn pudding. My first rolls, I think I was about 10. And my father said that they were too sweet and he said, dont make them no more. I said oh, yes, Im going to make them again. And I said, the reason Im going to make them over, Daddy, is because they may be my living one of these days. Well, thats what I done. I made rolls. My children, I sent them to school on some of my rolls.

(Soundbite of camera clicks)

LYDEN: Sarah photographs the kitchen, the golden, hand-rolled platters of rolls - and Myrtle B, of course. In her decade of work, all on black-and-white film, she's captured homely rituals, which are iconic in these small communities. In one set of photos, men whove just scalded a pig for ham emerge out of the steam like a ghostly platoon. In others, a sister circle raises joined hands in praise.

There are portraits, group shots, thousands of images. Sarah Hoskins says her reward has been in the doing.

Ms. HOSKINS: They gave me everything. I mean, I got to photograph hogs being killed. I got to learn about tobacco. I got to hear stories that people never will get to hear. I've been invited into people's churches and their kitchens, their family reunions.

LYDEN: Sarah calls these places and her documentary work "The Homeplace."

Myrtle's son, Isaac Hughes, is called Ike. He's 49. Ike came back here after living out of state, back to the homeplace of Zion Hill.

Mr. ISAAC HUGHES: Growing up on the hill, I always said, soon as I get out of school, I'm gone.

LYDEN: But just over a decade ago, Ike, a single father, returned to this almost bucolic bend of the Elkhorn River. Now, he appreciates the uniqueness and history of the hamlet. He organizes Zion Hill Day reunions every summer, when hundreds reunite and come home.

Mr. HUGHES: And I never would have thought that I'd be the one, grow up here on Zion Hill again with my kids.

LYDEN: So you didnt think you'd ever come back here. You'd move to Texas.

Mr. HUGHES: No, I had no intentions...

LYDEN: But then you were a dad with small kids, alone, and you thought, I better go home.

Mr. HUGHES: Yeah. I mean this is the ideal place to raise children. And even now now, my kids feel the same way I felt when I was a kid. They say the same thing: When I get out of school, I'm leaving here and I ain't coming back. And I say, watch what you say...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HUGHES: ...'cause I've heard that somewhere before.

LYDEN: How would you characterize this place today? How would you describe it to someone from the outside? What is Zion Hill to you?

Ms. MARGARET RAGLIN COLLINS: Home. This whole community was built with tears. That's how I remember it.

LYDEN: Miss Margaret Raglin Collins is 82. Zion Hill was founded by a group of former slaves before 1872. A couple of years ago, the residents dedicated a Kentucky historical marker there. And Sarah made a picture of Myrtle B and her friend, Miss Margaret, weeping at the event.

Ms. COLLINS: I've lived away from home, not that far, but I'm right back where I started from. Where I live is our grandfather's. It's not the same house. It's the property. And I felt like - that I would keep this place just in case somebody wanted to come home, they will always have a home.

LYDEN: Sarah Hoskins, who first heard about these places while she was photographing racetracks up north, has tracked down communities abandoned or nearly so, like Clabberbottom and Sugar Hill. She carries a frayed, faded map. You won't find the names of most of these places on Google Earth. When she holds up her film camera, I feel like Im watching someone operate an antique stereopticon. The 19th century isnt far away here.

Walter Beatty, of Frogtown, is 82 and a favorite subject - starting with his nickname, Walker Boy.

Mr. WALTER BEATTY: I got it right around when I was a baby. I dont know who gave it to me. All of us have got nicknames.

LYDEN: Yeah, I know.

Mr. BEATTY: All 17 of us.

LYDEN: So you are one of 17 children?

Mr. BEATTY: Seventeen children.

LYDEN: What are the nicknames of some of your relatives?

Mr. BEATTY: Big Devil is Willards, and Alice was Up. And Joe was Hooker. And my oldest sister was Slim. And my oldest brother was Poodle - his name was Clifford but...

LYDEN: Walker Boy says there is another way he and others feel tied to this area: baptisms. They were baptized in the rivers, creeks and ponds. And his winter baptism was particularly memorable.

Mr. BEATTY: It was real cold. They had to break the ice in the creek - thats right down by that bridge, before church. And then they had to break them when we went down to be baptized. There was 11 of us. Fifteen above zero didnt stop baptism, and the preacher would stay out in the water with their rubber suit on. But we didnt have nothing on. We just was out - and when I got back up to my sister's house - she live up by the church - well, I got out of my white pants, and they stand up just like somebody thats nearly froze, just like somebody was still in them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Couldnt it have waited 'til summertime?

Mr. BEATTY: I dont know why they did, but they baptized every year in the winter.

LYDEN: Some of the strongest rituals revolve around faith. Take the gospel group the Jimtown Male Chorus, started back in the 1950s. Many of its members have moved to Lexington, but they come 20 miles back to Jimtown Baptist Church to rehearse every Wednesday night. Seventy-one-year-old Joe Edwards, a member for 50 years, leads the group in prayer in the parking lot.

Mr. JOE EDWARDS (Member, Jimtown Baptist Church): We come, Heavenly Father, on behalf of the Jimtown Male Chorus. And we come for those, Heavenly Father, who have come to interview and to record the history of the Jimtown Male Chorus.

JIMTOWN MALE CHORUS (Singers): (Singing) I want to be ready. I want to be ready. I want to be ready. I want to be ready...

LYDEN: Of the five men rehearsing on this night, including a 16-year-old nephew, every one takes a turn at the lead vocal. Sarah makes her images, catching a look of joy spreading across 59-year-old Bert Edwards'(ph) face.

JIMTOWN MALE CHORUS (Singers): (Singing) Walk into Jerusalem. Talk, talk in Jerusalem. Sing, sing in Jerusalem. Shout, shout in Jerusalem. Walk, walk into Jerusalem just like John.

(Soundbite of horses)

LYDEN: The next morning, we find Bert Edwards, who was singing the night before, now grooming a thoroughbred. There's another kind of sacred faith here in bluegrass country, and thats in the horses. The big, historic race track near Lexington is called Keeneland. During the season, Bert, his brothers and just about everyone works there.

Who are we working on here today? Who is this guy?

Mr. BERT EDWARDS: This is New Pais(ph). Thats the Spanish name for New Country. They think he's going to have a great future here as a racehorse. He's really nice.

(Soundbite of trumpets)

Unidentified Man #1: They're off and running. Man O'War takes the lead over Sir Barton. As they come around the first turn, it's Man O' War leading Sir Barton by a length.

LYDEN: One of the most famous thoroughbreds ever to come out of bluegrass country was the legendary racehorse Man O'War.

Mr. MILLBURN GORDON: I guess Im about, well, the only one alive now thats ever been on Man O'War's back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Millburn Gordon(ph), 82, sat on Man O'War's back. His father-in-law was for decades the horse's groom. And when Man O'War was at stud at the Faraway Farms, siring legions of thoroughbreds, Millburn made his lunch money by giving directions to where the horse could be found.

Mr. GORDON: I went to Man O'War's funeral, when they had his funeral.

LYDEN: Had a funeral for him, huh?

Mr. GORDON: Oh, yes. they had funeral. He was in a casket.

Ms. HOSKINS: The horse.

LYDEN: The horse.

Mr. GORDON: And he was embalmed. It took the same amount of bottles of embalming fluids to embalm him as races that he won. It took 21 bottles. And people from all over the world came to that funeral. It was about 10,000 people. It was broadcast on the radio.

Unidentified Man #2: While we have lost Man O'War, we have not lost his bloodline. And for the sake of Lexingtons fame as the center of the world's leading horse-breeding region, may this blood be kept alive by thoroughbred breeding.

Ms. STELLA THOMAS: Hi.

Ms. HOSKINS: Hi, Miss Stella.

Unidentified Man #3: Now, let me get this door. Ladies, come right in.

Ms. THOMAS: How are you doing?

Ms. HOSKINS: Im doing well.

Ms. THOMAS: Oh, it's so good to see you.

LYDEN: Sarah Hoskins doesn't shy away from asking people - if they want to talk about it - who were your forbears? Did they work at the big farms? Which ones? Were they enslaved?

Ninety-two-year-old Miss Stella Thomas, of little Georgetown, remembers her great-grandfather.

Ms. STELLA THOMAS: He was a short man, didn't talk much, had pretty hair hanging down. But I was afraid of him.

LYDEN: Why were you afraid of him?

Ms. THOMAS: He just was different and didn't talk much, and I was afraid of him.

LYDEN: His great-grandfather was mixed race - son of a white owner and a black slave woman. Bill Thomas, 71, heard a lot about this man, his great-great-grandfather, growing up.

Mr. BILL THOMAS: And my mother would often tell me that they kept a little bed down at the foot of the main bed. And the little slave girl would stay in that bed, and she would attend to the master and his wife in the evenings. They - would fan them and bring them water and everything else. And many times, that master had children by that little slave girl, and that's how we come and made us all colors in the rainbow.

LYDEN: Sarah Hoskins has been asked if a white woman should be taking the kinds of pictures she does. One of the first people who introduced Sarah to the community was John Travis, the pastor at First Baptist Church Maddoxtown. He revels in the history here as much as she does, and he defended Sarah when the race question came up at a recent lecture she gave at the University of Kentucky.

Mr. JOHN TRAVIS (Pastor, First Baptist Church Maddoxtown): Sarah is not considered an outsider. Sarah's family. Generally, when people come into areas like Maddoxtown, Jimtown, they come in to take something out, and thats it. They come to get something, and they leave. Well, how long have you been here? She's been here almost as long as I have because the difference was, she didn't come to get, but she's done a great job at reviving the history.

Because the Negro hamlets have been put on the backburner, have for years - was not important. And so when Sarah shows up and she starts digging in, starts taking photographs and starts finding out information, people got a little pride again. They say, yeah, there's nothing wrong with our area.

Ms. HOSKINS: None of this work could be done if it wasn't for the relationships with the people in and of the communities. None of the work could have been made without them. And it's always interesting to me 'cause I have never, ever had a problem because I'm white, photographing in the black communities - with the people in the communities. But it's the outside world that has all these issues and always asks the question - well, you know, you're white. Like, I know that. And everybody on the outside wants to make a big deal about it.

LYDEN: Lately, she's begun to think hard about wrapping it all up, wrenching as it will be to let it go. It's heartbreaking to her when the older people pass away. When she does stop, she'll leave behind an archive of many thousands of pictures, some of which have already been acquired by the Smithsonian. The homeplaces are back on the map. One man told her, you know, Sarah, we ought to have been taking pictures all along.

Ms. HOSKINS: How many times have we done this over the years? Are you sick of me yet?

LYDEN: In Eidengerstown(ph), her last stop is at the newly restored community hall, the UBS Lodge 28. It stands for Union Benevolence Society. Sarah gathers its members on the porch for a picture.

Ms. HOSKINS: Where's the food? Come on, I know you love me. That's the response I get?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOSKINS: That's it? Oh, lord, all right. Right here, one, two, three...

(Soundbite of camera clicking)

LYDEN: As one woman told her, Sarah Hoskins, you're the slap-happiest picture-taking lady I know.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: For more on Sarah Hoskins' collection, The Homeplace, go to our website, NPR.org. Photographs from The Homeplace remain up at the University of Kentucky Art Museum in Lexington through May 2nd.

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