Photo from June 20th community conversation at the historic Portland Memorial Baptist Church

Prior to Emancipation, enslaved people from Kentucky and beyond fled their captors to Portland and across the Ohio River to the free state of Indiana. Now, a group of individuals and organizations are beginning a project to tell the stories of those people.

The Kentuckiana Underground Railroad Project (the Project) plans to create a visual representation of this Underground Railroad passageway. The individuals and organizations of the Project seek to engage with those in the Portland community to share the project’s goals and to invite community input.

The Project will develop art installations that reveal the pathway to freedom and the stories of those who came to Portland, an active shipping harbor. For decades, Portland’s residents witnessed the region’s growth and struggles experienced by Freedom Seekers.

As a border state during the Civil War, Kentucky was one of the four original states that did not secede from the union. However, slavery still existed here until ratification to the Constitution in 1865. Across the Ohio River, Indiana was a free state. The river separated enslaved Black people in Kentucky from a pathway to freedom in Indiana. Both a barrier and an opportunity, the river could be crossed by boat, and during certain times by foot at the Falls, the only natural obstruction in the Ohio River’s 981-mile length. It was here that enslaved people made a crucial passage  on their journey to freedom.

The Project wants to share these stories by creating a semi-permanent art installation using light to illuminate the path and to tell the tales of their journeys. The installation will speak to all ages and origins. It will enshrine the real history of slavery and emancipation in Louisville and Southern Indiana.

This Project will inspire pride, hope, honest reflection, and engagement with the difficult issues as they were and are. Its exact locations on both shores will be determined in collaboration with the selected artist(s).

To actively preserve and prioritize this vital and interconnected history, the Project will be a new opportunity for open community dialogue. It will invite proposals from BIPOC artists, including those with ancestral ties to enslaved Americans or those who achieved freedom via the Underground Railroad.

Written by the Kentuckiana Underground Railroad Project Collective

KURP Partners: Falls of the Ohio Foundation, Floyd County Carnegie Library Cultural Arts Center, Fund for the Arts, Portland Museum, River Fields, River Heritage Conservancy/Origin Park, Roots 101 African-American History Museum, Town Clock Church, (Un) Known Project. With operational support from: Forecast Public Art, Kertis, Louisville Tourism, and SoINTourism.