Let me state this unequivocally: Every home in Louisville should own a copy of this revelatory and accomplished work. While the reading of history is for many the foremost way to spend an afternoon, a large number of others learn best from visual stimuli and thus find historical photographs entrancing. An earnest and challenging text combined with a transcendent collection of vibrant photographs must then be the pinnacle of achievement — and “Two Centuries of Black Louisville” is just that.
I am uncustomarily speechless at the sheer of this volume. The muted colors throughout seem to mirror the lives portrayed, a sad darkness in the dispirited lives created by the slave trade. The rich sepias and ochers, however, burst from the page like the pride and promise so evident in the faces of those captured by the photographer's lens.
The portraits included here — which came from a variety of research and personal resources — should leave many readers awestruck. The images cover a broad spectrum: a poverty-stricken woman living in a hovel decades ago; a group of African-American children in Okolona being bused in the 1930s; students in a chemistry class at Catholic High School; four Louisville women, circa 1900, decked out in their finest and as enigmatic as is possible. So many of the subjects pictured bear that same enigmatic gaze, as if they bear the weight of their own lives, and their parents, and their parents before them. In many ways, I suppose they do.
The book begins with an incredibly edifying timeline that begins, logically enough, in 1581 when the Spanish brought the first African slaves to the North American mainland. Along the way you'll learn that while Gen. George Rogers Clark founded Louisville in 1778, it was only two years later that the first slave is recorded to have escaped from here (by 1855, the timeline later notes, the average is one escape per day in Louisville). You'll also discover many things overlooked or neglected in your history classes: In 1825, for example, “free blacks (were) allowed to marry other free blacks, but prohibited from marrying enslaved African Americans.” I'll leave the rest for you to discover, but be aware that when you finish the timeline, you will have a good grasp of the general history of black life in Louisville — and the book is only up to page 37! The ensuing pages of this more than 300-page volume combine studious but never stuffy prose with more of those vibrant photographs.