From 1870 to 1908, 13 black women in Kentucky were known to have been lynched or killed in other ways:
Mrs. Hawkins and her daughter, both of Fayette County.
Mrs. John Simes of Henry County.
Mrs. Ben French of Warsaw.
Meredith Jones of Auburn.
Ms. Cummins of Pulaski County.
Mrs. Phil Evans and her two daughters, all of Bardstown.
Marion Howard of Scottsville.
Mollie Smith of Trigg County.
Marie Thompson of Lebanon Junction.
Mrs. David Wallace and her entire family of Hickory Grove.
Poet and visual artist Bianca Spriggs and photographer and videographer Angel Clark aim to honor the memory of these forgotten women in The Thirteen, a multimedia exhibit at the Morlan Gallery at Transylvania University in Lexington.
The exhibit opened last week and will have a performance Wednesday.
"What I'm starting to find out is how lucky we are to even know their names," Spriggs says of the women, some of whose first names were erased by the male-centric recordkeeping of the era.
"These things didn't make the headlines or the history books," Spriggs says.
She began searching for stories about violence against black women in Kentucky after researching the 1911 Oklahoma lynching of Laura Nelson and her son, whose hanging under a bridge became the subject of a "lynching postcard," a popular novelty item of the time.
When Spriggs discovered a list of women killed in Kentucky, her home state, she was compelled to do something.
"I said I've never heard of these women before or their names mentioned anywhere," she recalls. "I don't know if anyone knows about them. I want to know more about the circumstances about their death."
Finding out more has proved difficult.
"In the cases of beatings or lynchings, it's really difficult to get any proof of what happened," says Spriggs, citing spotty records and widespread corruption in the judicial system of the time.
"I'm desperate for information," she says, "so if anyone who reads this knows anything about any of these women, please contact me."
One thing Spriggs is not lacking, however, is imagination. Already a celebrated poet, Spriggs, a Transylvania alumna and doctoral student at the University of Kentucky, also appears occasionally onstage as an actor, has made a film and exhibits visual art.
What she cannot find out about these women in the record books, she can make up for in poems, drawings, songs, photos and film, all part of The Thirteen's exhibition activities.
Drawing from mythological images, the exhibit is intended to be a shrine to the women's memory, a sacred space that does not focus on the violence of their deaths but on their spirits in an imagined afterlife where a soul must carry luggage from its previous life into the next.
Spriggs built an installation piece comprising stacks of white luggage that evoke the poem's central mythology. (She also created 13 resin skulls and several pen-and-ink drawings.)
Clark's photos intend to capture the haunting, lonesome quality of troubled souls wandering through the afterlife.
"I also wanted to relay the message that they were still here amongst us," says Clark, who photographed 13 local black women in period dress and developed the digital photos to look like antiques.
The images do not convey violence but the haunting intimacy found in troubled faces and burdened hearts.
Spriggs says, "Part of the problem with some of these shows or books about lynching is they kind of terrify the audience — and in some cases that is not a bad thing.
"But for us this is more about reclaiming the women themselves."
IF YOU GO
What: Bianca Spriggs and Angel Clark's multimedia exhibit and performance paying homage to 13 black women and girls who were lynched or otherwise murdered in Kentucky.
Exhibit: Through Feb. 15. Gallery hours: noon-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri. Transylvania University Morlan Gallery, inside Mitchell Fine Arts Center, 300 N. Broadway. Free. (859) 233-8142. Transy.edu/morlan.
Performance: Spoken word poetry, music and film. 7:30 p.m. Jan. 23. Morlan Gallery. $10 suggested donation. Due to limited space for the 75- minute performance, Spriggs welcomes interested viewers to attend the rehearsal at 2 p.m. Jan. 23.
From 'Beyond the Bridge: A Lynched Woman Speaks' by Bianca Spriggs
Forthcoming publication in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion.
At the front of the line,
everyone get handed
they own piece of luggage.
Inside little objects
from over your whole life
add up to clues
to wherever you
posedta go next:
Piece of patchwork
from your mama's quilt.
Spray of flowers
from your beau.
Coupla bobby pins.
with the cracked glass.
Mother a pearl cufflink
you thought you'd lost.
Letter you never mailed
to your sister.
If you can piece it
all together, all them little
shards you never
thought to pay much
mind to or forgot to notice,
if you can figure
what the world
was tryna tell you all along,
you get to move on to
whatever come next.
REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer.