Rediscovering Black History in Louisville: A Reflection

2892 Miles to Go Tulsa storyteller Kristi Orisabiyi Williams wrote this post.

As an organizer and lover of history, traveling for me is more than just enjoying the attractions. Do you know the difference between a traveler and a tourist? A tourist takes pictures at famous landmarks, buys souvenirs, and moves on to the next destination. A traveler takes pictures but with meaningful intentions to share and educate others. Travelers communicate with the locals and indulge in different cultures, food, music, and history, allowing them to leave lasting impressions on their heart and spirit. I am a traveler.

So I was filled with excitement to visit Louisville, Kentucky last fall and meet fellow members of 2892 Miles to Go.

2892 Miles to Go is a social justice geo-inquiry program supported by the National Geographic Society. The project amplifies community stories most often left out of common narratives of human history and culture. When I visited Louisville, I had joined the 2892 project only a month before, as a community storyteller contributing stories from my hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

While working to create a 2892 StoryMap for Oklahoma and reading the StoryMap of Louisville, I felt like I had known Ashley Lamb-Sinclair and the Louisville storytellers all my life. I had never met them in person but longed for the opportunity to do so. One day, while scrolling through Facebook, I came across a post from Ashley, who is the steward of 2892. The post was about GIS Week at the University of Louisville. Immediately, I said to myself, “This is your opportunity to go meet them!” So I reached out to Ashley and kind of invited myself and some friends. Well, I did invite myself, and thank God Ashley accepted my invitation. My friends and I booked our flights and hotel, then we were on our way to Louisville.

Members of 2892 Miles to Go pose in Louisville in November 2021.

Once we got into the Uber from the airport in Louisville, we were excited and had our phones ready to take pictures of the landscape through the car windows. When I saw the street sign “Muhammad Ali,” I screamed “OMG” and took a picture. Suddenly, I couldn’t help but think of the stories of Lance Newman II, Kenneth Woods, and Marlesha Woods from the Louisville StoryMap. I shouted, “This is Walnut Street!” Walnut Street, an historic Black business district, was one of the sites these Louisville storytellers celebrated in their StoryMap. I pictured eight blocks containing more than 100 Black businesses: a thriving Black community that existed in the exact same space and amidst the exact same air I was now breathing. Vivid images of that time raced through my mind, and I could even smell hints of people passing me and food from a home-cooked meal. Then I came back to reality and saw what had replaced the scenes from my imagination: the trophies of urban renewal or, as we call it, “urban removal,” which stood strong and proud while wearing the name Muhammad Ali Blvd. The picture looks entirely different now.

On my list of things to do in Lousiville was to visit the Muhammad Ali Center. When we got there, we waited to enter in a waiting area with a huge window that looked out to the Ohio River. I took a picture from a window of the river. For Black people, the Ohio River isn’t just any river—just like the Red Sea isn’t just any sea to Christian believers.  When enslaved Africans escaped from plantations to go North, the Ohio served as an almost-there point. They knew freedom waited on the other side if they could get there. Can you imagine facing that huge river, understanding what it meant once you got to the other side, while also remembering the family and friends you had to leave behind?

When Ali came back to Louisville from the 1960 Olympics with his gold medal, he was denied access to a restaurant in his own hometown. He was so upset that he reportedly went to the bridge below and threw his medal into the river. I stood there looking out that window, watching Black people cross the river. Of course, they weren’t there, but I could see them anyway.

Kristi visits the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville.

Another place I wanted to visit was the Breonna Taylor mural. I didn’t want to see it because of its beauty but to pay homage to her. I was looking for some sort of connection to her to say, “I won’t forget your name.” I wanted to confirm my work and absorb a sense of knowing that I was moving in the right direction on this walk to justice.

Kristi stands in front of a mural of Breonna Taylor in Louisville.

Marlesha Woods told me about the Black museum in Louisville called Roots 101. I will never forget that place and its owner, Lamont Collins. This museum was like no other, because not only was it about African history in Africa and America, but I could also touch the artifacts. In fact, Mr. Collins had chains and shackles that were over 400 years old that he actually bound to my wrists. When he put them on me, I cried like a baby. The pain of every person who had been kept in those shackles rushed through me so strongly that my soul recognized each soul who had touched them. I have no doubt that my soul made an agreement with each soul who had touched those chains never to forget and never to stop demanding justice.

Kristi wears centuries-old chains at Louisville’s Roots 101 museum.

What I gathered through this experience is that educating others about our history, as a descendant or one who is greatly impacted by a particular part of history, is different from teaching it on an academic level. I am a descendant of residents of Greenwood, a Black community in Tulsa decimated by a white mob in 1921, and of Creek Freedmen, whom the Muscogee (Creek) people forcibly relocated to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears. My great-aunt Janie, who was in the Dreamland Theater on Black Wall Street when the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre occurred, shared her story of that experience with me before it gained wider attention. My great-great-grandfather Jesse Franklin came to Indian Territory before Oklahoma statehood on the Trail of Tears, enslaved to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. He became the first African Supreme Court justice of the Creek Nation, in 1874. I am connected to my family’s lived experiences and history, which makes my perspective an important one. There are some very critical elements to history, such as lived experiences, one can’t necessarily access by asking Alexa or browsing a college library. There is no one better to tell our stories than us. Descendants and those proximate to the history bring an essential truth.

If I had not read the stories from Lance, Marlesha, and Kenny Fresh from Louisville, I would have been sold on just seeing Muhammad Ali’s name on the street sign. Instead, they carried me through their lived experiences and the stories of their ancestors. As Napoleon suggested, “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” It’s time that we uncover history with truth.

If you visit Louisville, make sure you stop at these places knowing the truth. If you live in Louisville, find Lance Newman II and Kenneth and Marlesha Woods. Visit these places with the intention of recharging your spirit, unlearning what you have been programmed to know, and participating in actions that bring you and others closer to the truth. Louisville gave me a deeper sense of purpose. I’m so glad I went.

Be sure to check out these supplemental resources that Kristi recommends:

2892 Miles to Go Geographic Walk for Justice is a project with the National Geographic Society. It is made up of storytellers on a quest to unearth experiences of human history and culture across communities and classrooms. Follow along with #2892MilestoGo.

Kristi Orisabiyi Williams is a 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre descendant and Creek Freedmen descendant. Kristi has served the Greenwood and North Tulsa communities for over 10 years through grassroots organizing. Kristi is an author, program manager for Fitting Back In, consultant for Standpipe Hill Strategies, and one of six Tulsans serving as a Wayfinder on National Geographic’s 2892 Miles to Go Geographic Walk for Justice. She currently serves as chair of the city of Tulsa’s Greater Tulsa African American Affairs Commission, committee member of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Mass Graves Oversight Committee, founding board member of the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce, and campaign manager for Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper. She has also participated in movies and documentaries such as Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America, Dreamland: The Burning of Black Wall Street, Tulsa: The Fire and the Forgotten, and other films sharing the history of Greenwood, Black Wall Street, and Creek Freedmen. Kristi’s motto is, “Don’t worry about changing people. Just use the power of your story and the power in your hands and feet to build your community better than you found it; that’s how you make change!”

The featured image is of the Ohio River in Louisville. All photos courtesy of Kristi Orisabiyi Williams

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