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Sculpture Honoring Slaves in Unmarked Graves Installed at Somerset Community College

The massacre of nine African-Americans by a 21-year-old white man at a Charleston, South Carolina church in 2015 ignited a project in Kentucky to emphasize the better side of human nature.

Now, the culmination of four years of effort to honor slaves buried in unmarked graves is an elegant sculpture rising from the heart of a community college.

The Lake Cumberland Slaves Memorial was installed at Somerset Community College in Pulaski County, Kentucky on July 9. The sculpture was secured to a trailer for the journey from the artist's studio in Georgia to the college campus. 

Sculptor Ayokunle Odeleye and assistant Dylan Doyle used hand grinders, with a cutting disc, to cut steel braces that secured the 20-foot tall, 2,000 pound sculpture to the trailer.

Then crane operator Kevin Alexander, of Boswell Crane Service, managed the skillful lift of the sculpture with a crane on a 70-foot boom, slowly carrying the monument through the air and lowering it to its permanent base. 

Onlookers that gathered intemittantly throughout the 90 degree July day to witness the installation included members of the Lake Cumberland Slaves Memorial Board, and administrators and staff members of Somerset Community College. A formal dedication ceremony will be scheduled in the near future.

A Work of Art as A Response to An Act of Hate

Paul Guffey said the installation of the stainless steel work of art made for "a glorious day." Guffey has been with the project since its inception four years ago.

“Three of us got together and we were the founding board members of the Lake Cumberland Slaves Memorial," said Guffey." He was joined by Charlie Leveridge and Dave Holland.

Guffey said the three founding members share some characteristics

“All three white and older. Two of us are retired, Dave is not," said Guffey, who recalls that the purpose of forming the slaves memorial board was based on their common belief that it was time to take positive, public action.

“The three of shared a Sunday school discussion group and the discussion was right after the horrific event at the A.M.E. church in Charleston,” said Guffey.

That horrific event was when a white supremacist fatally shot nine African-Americans during a Bible study. Guffey said racism and inequality had previously been discussed in their Sunday school group, but the massacre was just too troubling to let it go by.

“The three of us decided that something needed to be done, there needed to be a statement that was opposite or opposed to that horrific event at that AME church in Charleston,” said Guffey.

During a sunrise service at the Somerset City Cemetery, Guffey said they noticed a section with no grave markers. They were told it contained the graves of slaves.

Co-chair of the Lake Cumberland Slaves Memorial Board Phillip Duncan said the installation marks an achievement for the entire region.

“We have an overwhelming fellowship of love in this community. I think that extends beyond skin color,” said Duncan.

He said even before the memorial project began, people in Wayne County, where he lives, often contacted him about sites where slaves might be buried. 

“Me being African-American and in the community, they would also come and ask me if they knew about these things and the need to have it documented. So it was good to see white Americans in this community that would come and be wanting to share, get that message out there, that hey, we know that there’s a history here and it needs to be brought forward.” 

The artist said the sculpture in the shape of a boat paddle suggests a wide span of world history and timeless symbolism.  

“Enslaved African-Americans, when they were brought to this country they remembered a lot of their spiritual practices. And traditional African spiritual practices suggest that when your spirit comes into this world you enter through a body of water," said Odeleye.

He said traditional African belief is that your spirit also leaves this world through a body of water.

“So it’s almost like you’re taking a boat ride into this life and you’re taking a boat ride out," said Odeleye. "Hence, the paddle.”

The form at the top of the sculpture is the Sankofa bird from West Africa.

"The Sankofa bird always has its head turned backwards, looking in the other direction. That is symbolic of, the statement is, ‘It’s never too late to go back and reclaim your history and culture,'" said Odeleye. "I thought it was important because the individuals who brought together this memorial commission to raise these funds were literally looking back and honoring past history.” 

An Act of  'Spiritual Purification'

There's another symbolic element of the sculpture that can be emphasized more in the future.

“Now, on top that bird is sitting on a little boat," said Odeleye. At the top, there’s an opening and a stainless steel tube running all the way through the structure of the sculpture.

"So when rainwater comes, rainwater can come out  those little openings," said the artist. "If the committee decides they want to begin to identify some of the gravesites or individuals and engrave their names on the concrete, I’ve allowed water to come and wash over the surface as an act of spiritual purification.”

Somerset Community College President Carey Castle, who stopped by to see the installation process on the way to a staff meeting, said the location of the memorial is an expression of the character of the community and the campus.

“We’re a welcoming environment for all students, regardless of where they come from or where they’ve been," said Castle. "We like a diverse and equitable and inclusionary group and this art reflects that kind of thinking, as it does its job of pointing out things that have occurred in the past.”

Castle said the memorial can create an awareness even broader than honoring slaves in unmarked graves. 

"I think it goes way beyond that. I think it actually brings up those eras in our history we need to be cognizant of, because if we’re going to move forward, we need to understand where we came from," said Castle. "This does a great job of tying the past to the current place we live and can help us make good decisions moving to the future."

The memorial recognizes and honors the dignity of slaves who were an integral part of the economic development of Kentucky. According the Lake Cumberland Slaves Memorial Association, slavery reached a peak in Kentucky in 1860, with more than 225,000 enslaved people living in the state. 

The memorial sculpture, and the history that prompted the community to create it, are the foundation of the next phase of the project, an educational program that will allow current and future generations to honor the slaves who helped build the Lake Cumberland region.

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