Kentuckiana Underground Railroad Project

The Kentuckiana Underground Railroad Project is a multi-organizational initiative to create a light-based piece of public art interpreting and acknowledging the history of the Underground Railroad in the Falls of the Ohio region.

Collaborators from across our region are partnering on this effort to shine light on the pathway to freedom across the Ohio River that many brave souls embarked upon over 150 years ago. The project will serve as a beacon and clarion call for those stories of the Underground Railroad, between Portland and New Albany, to be discovered, told, and heard.

The Story

Natural History

Over the entire stretch of the Ohio River’s 981 miles there is only one natural barrier, the Falls of the Ohio.  The Falls are the only bedrock passage across the river, and this limestone barrier has served as a crossroads of culture and the catalyst for the development of our river communities. History has literally left an indelible impression on the Falls’ bedrock.

For millennia, mammoth and bison, and the indigenous people of the lands we now know as Kentucky and Indiana left their own mark alongside and on top of that limestone. As the landscape and cultures around the river evolved, the history of our community was written, including the stories of the Underground Railroad.

History of the People

Kentucky was a border state during the Civil War, one of the four original states that did not secede from the union.  However, slavery still existed in the state until the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. Around this time Portland was an active shipping harbor and was witness to our region’s growth and the struggles experienced by those seeking freedom.

Right across the river, Indiana was a free state.  The Ohio River separated enslaved Black people in Kentucky from a potential pathway to freedom in Indiana. In this regard, the Ohio River acted as both a barrier and an opportunity. The river could be crossed by boat, and during certain times of the year, crossed on foot at the Falls. That passageway presented an opportunity for freedom seekers to travel north, from Kentucky to Indiana, and cross from slavery to freedom on the Underground Railroad’s invisible corridor.

Unfortunately, we cannot see the footprints of the enslaved who crossed the river to freedom. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot, or should not, tell their stories as a part of our shared community’s history.

The Installation

Our partners are working to bring a visual representation of the Underground Railroad passageway, from Portland to New Albany, so that our community can better connect with our past and the stories of the Underground Railroad.

This semi-permanent installation will utilize light as its primary medium and will span the Ohio River from Kentucky to Indiana. Its exact location will be determined in collaboration with the artist.

This installation will speak to all ages and origins and enshrine the stories of Louisville and Southern Indiana’s history with the Underground Railroad. Its direct outcome will be a deeply empathetic connection, engagement with the real history of slavery and emancipation in our region. The site will inspire pride, hope, honest reflection, and engagement with difficult issues as they were and are. While the installation should speak deeply to local history, it could also serve as inspiration for similar installations at other Underground Railroad crossing points.

To actively preserve and prioritize this vital and interconnected history, the partnership will invite proposals from BIPOC artists, including those with ancestral ties to enslaved Americans or those who achieved freedom via the Underground Railroad, while providing opportunities for open community dialogue in the project.

The Partners

Falls of the Ohio Foundation
Floyd County Carnegie Library Cultural Arts Center
Fund for the Arts
Portland Museum
River Heritage Conservancy/Origin Park
Roots 101 African-American Museum
Town Clock Church
(Un)Known Project

With Operational Support From

Forecast Public Art
Louisville Tourism
SoIN Tourism

Special Thanks to Our Supporters

Bales Foundation
Caesars Foundation of Floyd County
Carnegie Center for Art and History, Inc.
Duke Energy Foundation

Samtec Cares

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