The legacy of blues and jazz in Kentucky will take the spotlight at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage Saturday during the center’s third annual celebration of the Juneteenth holiday.
Juneteenth (June 19, 1865) was the date Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas and issued General Order Number Three, which freed the last slaves in America. African American communities across the country began to celebrate the day afterward, and Texas became the first state to make it a state holiday in 1980. The Kentucky legislature passed a resolution in 2005 to officially recognize Juneteenth.
The exhibition, which will change quarterly, will include artifacts, posters, sheet music and other items from the Kentucky Music Heritage Foundation archives, said Dan Colon, the new nonprofit’s artistic director. KMHF is currently working to establish a music museum in Louisville, and much of the material was donated to KMHF by Atlanta collector Doug Van Buren, who is a Louisville native.
Colon said KMHF’s main goal is to promote musicians who deserve greater recognition. The Juneteenth exhibition includes tributes to blues singer Sara Martin, who was at one time the highest paid African American performer in the country. Born in Smoketown, Martin started out on the vaudeville circuit in 1917 and became the first singer to record “T’aint Nobody’s Business If I Do.” She also helped other Louisville artists to get record deals.
“This exhibit is about creating a stronger legacy for these musicians who made Louisville an epicenter for culture. People have forgotten what it meant to be a river town and the great music that went along with that,” Colon added.
Executive Director Aukram Burton said the music exhibition is a perfect fit with the center’s mission of promoting African American history and the Russell neighborhood.
“Before there was a Muhammad Ali Boulevard, there was Old Walnut Street, which many people called ‘Louisville’s Harlem,’” Burton explained. “Soldiers from Fort Knox used to come here to visit clubs like the Top Hat. At a time when the city is talking about remaking Russell, we wanted to highlight an important part of its past.”
The opening reception for the exhibition also will include previews from a documentary on internationally renowned jazz artist Janis Carter Miller and a musical about blues singer Mary Ann Fisher.
There are photos of Fisher in the exhibition and KMHF co-founder Marjorie Marshall will perform selections from “The Real Songbird of the South,” a musical she wrote about Fisher’s life.
Fisher was born in Henderson County, Ky. but raised in a Louisville orphanage. She started singing in local clubs but got her big break in 1955 when legendary bandleader Ray Charles saw her sing at the USO club on the Fort Knox Army base. The two started a professional and personal relationship — she was the inspiration for several Charles songs including “Mary Ann” — that lasted until 1958 when she left his revue to begin a solo career.
Fisher returned to Louisville in 1967 and performed around town until her death in 2004. Marshall was one of Fisher’s backup singers. She was inspired to write the musical about Fischer after seeing the dismissive portrayal of her friend in the Charles biopic “Ray.”
While working on her musical, Marshall attended “Telling Our Tales: Plays from West Louisville,” a workshop given by poet and playwright Frank X. Walker at the heritage center in January. That is when Marshall approached Burton with the idea of having the center host a display of the artifacts compiled by KMHF. Until they were taken to the center, most of the items were in storage at the Lettersong Calligraphy Studio on Story Avenue.
“The Kentucky African American Heritage Center has been such an engine for change in our community. We are so grateful to them for helping us to tell Mary Ann’s story and the stories of these other musicians. This is just the first step to getting them the visibility they deserve,” Marshall explained.
The Kentucky Center for African Amercian Heritage’s Juneteenth celebration kicks off at 1 p.m. on Saturday with a Family Fun Day featuring a portable planetarium from University of Louisville’s Rauch Planetarium, a puppet-making workshop taught by puppet master Troy Johnson and other activities for children.
The opening reception for the music exhibition and performances will start at 6 p.m. The entire event is free and open to the public. The center is located at 1701 W. Muhammad Ali. Blvd.