In a darkened former courtroom on ground where slaves were once bought and sold, Georgia Powers sat in front of a video camera and told her story.
Born in the "Jim Crow Town" section of Springfield, she grew up in Louisville. Powers first realized African-Americans were being treated as second-class citizens when she and a white friend had to attend different schools.
Powers grew up to be a community organizer and civil rights activist. When a state senator she was trying to lobby blew smoke in her face, she decided she needed a seat beside him. Powers became the first woman and first African-American elected to the Kentucky Senate. There, she sponsored and fought for passage of the South's first laws guaranteeing blacks equal rights to home ownership and public accommodations.
"I saw a need for someone to speak out for women, for African-Americans, for children," said Powers, now 85. She described a time that seems so long ago, but wasn't, and the skillful political maneuvering it took to secure rights and freedoms Kentuckians now take for granted.
Powers' story says a lot about the Kentucky experience — and the American experience. It is one of many stories that will be featured in a documentary film being made by five University of Kentucky professors, Academy Award-winning director and producer Paul Wagner and composer Kinny Landrum. The film will be narrated by Kentucky-born actress Ashley Judd.
Filming for Kentucky — An American Story began last week with Daniel Blake Smith, a UK historian and the film's executive producer, taping several interviews on UK's campus and at the Lexington History Museum in the former Fayette County courthouse.
In addition to Powers and fellow civil rights activist J. Blaine Hudson, Smith interviewed journalists Al Smith and Maryjean Wall and historians Ron Eller, Tracy Campbell, Stephen Aron and John Mack Faragher.
Full-scale filming will begin in the spring, and Smith expects the documentary to be finished by mid-2010. The film will be either one or two hours, depending on how much more money the filmmakers' non-profit corporation can raise. And it will be only one piece of a project that will include a companion book and a Web site with supplemental content that schools can use to teach Kentucky history.
Smith said the filmmakers want Kentuckians to learn more about their history — and to take pride in it.
"We think Kentucky's history is very revealing of the American experience," he said. "So many people think that American history only happened in places like Washington and Philadelphia and Boston. But a lot of it happened in Kentucky. We want viewers to be surprised about what has happened in Kentucky and feel connected to it."
Kentucky — An American Story won't cover everything, and it won't be a dry history lesson. Both Smith and Wagner, also a Kentucky native, have significant filmmaking experience. Their collaborators include two historians and authors, Campbell and Eller, who know how to tell a good story.
The film will focus on Kentucky people, land and politics, telling stories both familiar and surprising. Those stories include Kentucky's pioneer settlement and early prosperity; how racial and religious conflict gave way to pioneering civil rights progress; the blessing and curse of coal and tobacco; the planning and marketing that created the Thoroughbred horse industry; and even the rich history of girls' basketball.
In his interview for the film, journalist Al Smith, the founding host of KET's weekly public affairs program Comment on Kentucky, discussed the state's many contradictions and challenges.
Kentuckians have long been stereotyped by outsiders as feuding mountaineers and poor hillbillies. Yet the state has produced some of America's most acclaimed authors and intellectuals, people such as Robert Penn Warren, Harry Caudill, Harriett Arnow, Wendell Berry and Elizabeth Hardwick.
Many Kentuckians once rejected the science that shows tobacco causes cancer, just as they now reject the science that shows burning coal causes global warming, Smith noted. And not far from one of the nation's most remarkable collections of prehistoric fossils, fundamentalist Christians recently built the Creation Museum.
The Kentucky of 1784 was described by pioneer author John Filson as the "New Eden," yet many parts of the state have since been despoiled by strip mining, excessive logging and over development.
For 21/2 centuries, Kentucky has always seemed to be at the center of America — not only its geography, but its people's successes and failures, challenges, hopes, dreams and cultural conflicts. Author Jesse Stuart described it this way: "If these United States can be called a body, Kentucky can be called its heart."