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Posting history

The Lexington History Museum uses a low-tech tool to uncover the secrets in its vast photograph collection: Post-it Notes.

Given more than 100 old photos that document 20th-century life for blacks in Lexington, but not a lot of information about the people and places pictured, the museum five years ago placed pens and Post-it Notes throughout the permanent exhibit ”In Black and White“ and invited visitors to share what they knew.

”Please help us,“ small signs implore.

Today, yellow and blue notes circle many of the photos mounted on walls or dangle beneath them like beards. They're slowly identifying the lost faces in pictures of graduating classes, church choirs, bands and sports teams.

”Christopher Jackson Sr., my grandfather,“ says a note with an arrow pointing at one player in the photo ”Lexington Hustlers Baseball Team, late 1940s.“

Another photo, of a previously unknown church, is really the ”Consolidated Baptist Church, Upper Street, Lexington — Rev. William Humphrey Howard“ presiding, a note helpfully offers. A second note identifies one church member in the rear as ”Otis Hunn, owner of Hunn's Grocery Store and Hunn's Barbershop.“

Asking people to scribble and slap up information serves two purposes, said Jamie Millard, museum president and chief executive officer. It's a legitimate way of learning more about the photographs, and at the same time, it lets visitors interact with the exhibit in a way that museums often do not encourage, he said.

”With the typical historical display, people are presented with something behind glass and told, "Here it is,'“ Millard said.

”What we're doing is asking people to participate with us and try to understand what we have,“ he said. ”To me, it makes history more of a living thing that we all can relate to.“

The photos come from sources both official — including the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University — and unofficial. The museum collected much of its exhibit at local churches and community festivals from people who found long-forgotten family photos stored in closets and attics, not always knowing the stories behind them.

Museum staff are told to record what the Post-it notes say for their files, but they don't remove them from the walls. That's Psychology 101: Fewer people would take the initiative to post a note if they faced a blank wall, Millard said.

The anonymous notes show that visitors to the museum — more than 8,000 in the last year — know a lot more than just local history.

For example, a photo shows President Nixon speaking at the 1971 funeral of civil-rights activist Whitney Young Jr. in Lexington's Greenwood Cemetery. Sharp-eyed visitors have left notes identifying notables in the crowd, such as future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham, governors Louie Nunn and A.B. ”Happy“ Chandler and possibly Coretta Scott King, widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The photo that produces the most notes — about two dozen so far — is ”Lynching of unidentified man, 1905.“ A black man accused of raping a white woman hangs from a noose on the steps of the Bourbon County courthouse in Paris. A crowd of men has gathered. One white man with a moustache, staring defiantly at the camera, stands next to the corpse and puts his left hand against its back, pushing it forward.

The notes at this photo share nothing but horror.

”Man is supposed to be better than this,“ one says. ”Shame on them,“ concludes another.