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There's a photo tacked over the stove in Sarah Hoskins' home. It's of her and a man named Ernest Talbert, a hog butcher and a pillar of the tiny communities that used to be called the "Negro Hamlets."
The clusters of homes on hilltops and creek bottoms around Lexington, Ky., were built on land bought by newly freed slaves in the 1860s and 1870s. They have names like Frogtown, Maddoxtown, Zion Hill. Many of these towns still survive today, six or seven generations later, though some are fading fast into history. Clabber Bottom is down to just a few houses.
Hoskins prefers to call these communities "The Homeplace," which is also the title of her ongoing documentary project. She's logged thousands of miles traveling to the area from her Illinois home. When she started taking photographs, she hoped to bring a historic part of America's post-Civil War past to life. Ten years later, she's become part of the community she came to observe.
"I can't imagine my life without these people," she says. "I've been to family reunions, basket meetings at church where everyone baptized there comes back for a picnic. I've photographed planting tobacco, slaughtering hogs and curing hams, been told histories. I've gotten to hear stories that people will never get to hear."
Old Roots, New Faces
One of Hoskins' pictures shows Margaret Raglin Collins and her lifelong friend, Myrtle B. Hughes, weeping over a historic marker dedicated in Zion Hill in 2008. The marker proclaims the community's origin, founded before 1872 by a group of 20 freedmen.
Collins is 82 years old. "This whole community was built with tears," she says. "That's how I remember it. I've lived away from home, but not that far. But I'm right back where I started from."
She lives on land that used to belong to her grandfather. "I felt like I would keep this place, just in case somebody wanted to come home," she says. "I just wish more people would come back."
Isaac Hughes, Hughes' son, never thought he'd return. "Growing up on the hill, I always said, 'Soon as I get out of school, I'm gone.' "
But just over a decade ago, he returned to the tiny town on a bend of the Elkhorn River. "And I wound up bringing kids back," he says. "I wasn't kin to half the people down here, like a lot of people are, but everybody kind of looked after each other."
Now he appreciates the uniqueness and history of the hamlets, and even organizes Zion Hill Day reunions every summer, when hundreds of people come back to renew family ties. "Now my kids feel the same way I felt when I was a kid. They say the same thing: 'When I finish school, I'm gonna leave here and not come back.' And I say, 'Watch what you say, 'cause I've heard that somewhere before!' "
A Living History
Hoskins carries a frayed, faded map showing places with names you won't find on Google Earth. By her count, there are more than 40 hamlets. She's meticulous about shooting black-and-white film instead of digital, but old ways seem appropriate for the subject.
There's a lot of the 19th century in these places, and not all of it quite so alluring. Slave shacks still dot the countryside, next to satellite TV dishes. White great-great-grandfathers are spoken of; slave owners commonly fathered children with young female slaves.
Many of the town's residents were baptized in the area's rivers, creeks and ponds. Walter Beatty of Frogtown is 82. His baptism was in the winter, and he remembers it well.
"It was real cold. They had to break the ice in the creek," he says. "When I got back up to my sister's house ... Well, I got out of my white pants, and they stood up cause they was froze, like somebody was still in them."
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. Joe Edwards — 71 and a member for 50 years — leads the group in prayer in the parking lot.
"Come, Heavenly Father, on behalf of the Jimtown Male Chorus," he prays. There are five members rehearsing this night. As they sing, each member takes a turn at lead vocal. The youngest singer is 16. Hoskins moves around the group making images. She catches a look of joy spreading across 59-year-old Bert Edwards' face. Their songs, "Walking to Jerusalem," "Look to Jesus," "Last Mile Away," seem like something from another century — and very well may be.
Part Of The Family
Sometimes people have wondered if a white woman should be taking pictures in these black communities. The question came up at a recent lecture Hoskins gave at the University of Kentucky. That was when one of her subjects stepped to her defense.
"Sarah is not considered an outsider; Sarah's family," John Travis said. Travis is the pastor of the First Baptist Church Maddoxtown and one of the first people Hoskins met when she started her project.
"When people come into areas — Maddoxtown, Jimtown — they come to take something out. They get something and then they leave," he continued. "She didn't come to get, she came to do some restoration. She knows more about areas here than most people in Maddoxtown — and most people in those areas. She's done a great job at reviving the history we didn't know."
Sarah Hoskins' photos are on display at the University of Kentucky Art Museum through May 2 in Lexington, Ky.
But lately, Hoskins has been thinking hard about wrapping it all up. It's heartbreaking to her when the older people pass away. She photographed the funeral of Ernest Talbert, the hog butcher in the photo in her kitchen — and one of her closest friends.
"You couldn't fit the people in the church at New Zion," she says. "When Uncle Ernest passed, there was a line all the way down the lane. I discussed with his children whether I should take pictures, and they said, 'Oh, Daddy would have wanted you to take pictures.' "
Through the years she's been photographing the area, historical markers have gone up, an African-American community lodge has been renovated, and she's built an archive of many thousands of pictures, some of which have already been acquired by the Smithsonian.
The Homeplace is back on the map, and its communities have a newfound feeling of pride. "You know, Sarah, we ought to have been taking pictures all along," Talbert told her before he died. Her job may be done.