Photographer Sarah Hoskins’ mission is not so much to preserve history, as to keep people and places from passing into history, without acknowledgement or notice, understanding or regard. This has been her passion since she began 13 years ago to create a visual record of hamlets near Lexington, Kentucky, small villages founded by ex-slaves and populated by their fifth- and sixth-generation descendants. Because these hamlets are largely missing from academic literature, Sarah’s effort is the first real survey of an important part of black history.
Unlike many of the towns and historic sites American Legacy has covered in the past, the more than 30 hamlets Hoskins has captured in her thousands of photographs do not always appear to have obvious importance—although early structures do exist—in dwindling numbers as they are torn down, collapse, or in the case of a 75-year old tobacco barn there, burn down. The history is in the people who have preserved the customs of their ancestors. Hamlet natives who’ve moved to the big city, Lexington, often still come home for Sunday services and dinner. The hamlets are important, most of all, because they still exist.
There were dozens of hamlets in Kentucky after the Civil War; many were wiped out or disappeared before Hoskins began her project. This is an old story, especially true of African-American communities and towns founded after Emancipation. If they didn’t fail outright, or they actually thrived, they might be destroyed for merely being black and successful—only witness the events at Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, where the majority population of African Americans were run out of town by white supremacists; or the destruction of the middle-class black neighborhood of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921. Some traditionally black lands, once considered undesirable, are now coveted and snatched up by realtors—the barrier islands of Georgia and South Carolina, populated by the Gullah/Geechee nation, descendants of West Africans brought to the area to work on the rice plantations, are such a place.
Hoskins’ ongoing project is a visual record and foil against suburban and urban renewal and sprawl that bedevil the black hamlets of Kentucky. When she found a new community called Sugar Hill, she was able to visit with an 84-year-old hamlet resident, one whom she had been told by others would shoot at her if she came on her property. The elder instead welcomed her into her home, and in the course of Sarah’s visit pointedher to yet another undocumented community. What is most striking about Hoskins is that she does what she does as much for the residents of these villages, as for historical posterity. Many hamlet residents did not really believe their hometowns were important until they saw Hoskins traveling several hours back and forth between her home in Illinois and Kentucky, sometimes month after month, year after year. Now they play their own part in preserving their towns. She has inspired them, which makes her project not only crucial in terms of its historical value, but important on the most important level, at least for us, the human one. “Her presence in our communities over the past four years has renewed a pride in the old hamlets,” wrote one resident in a 2004 letter to the Guggenheim Foundation (Hoskins worthy work did not garner a fellowship). “She is well-known and received by the older members of the communities who are often very skeptical when visitors ‘show up’ but yet have been revitalized because someone is taking the time to show sincere interest and concern for them.
“I only wish I could fully express the importance of her work and what it means to all of us. From Maddoxtown to Jimtown, from New Zion to New Vine, from Utteringtown to Peytontown, from Bracktown to Cadentown (to name a few) she has made good friends who eagerly anticipate her arrival each time she ventures from Chicago, Illinois. As a result she has compiled a list of names—friends given her by local residents that is quite extensive and she manages to keep in contact with many of us by phone. She is so highly favored because she did not come to take away from us like so many do, but unknowingly she has restored a sense of pride once again in our African-American heritage.”
Hoskins continues her mission of restoration. Her latest project is to capture the remaining Rosenwald Schools—erected in the early twentieth century by black communities in the South and Midwest to raise the quality of education for African Americans. Members of the communities raised money, and their funds were matched, beginning in 1917, by Sears and Roebuck founder and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald through a program he developed with Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute. By the end of the program in 1933 nearly 5,000 schools had been erected in 15 states. Over the decades, some of the buildings were used for other purposes; many fell into ruin, or were simply torn down. Some have been restored and repurposed with help from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In 2010 The Alice Rosenwald Flexible Fund for Rosenwald Schools gave Hoskins funds to print her photos of those schools that are still in danger of being lost, and in need of rehabilitation. Ultimately the prints were used for the Robert C May exhibition/lecture series at The University of Kentucky.
A man named Ernest Talbert, whom Hoskins photographed killing hogs, told her when she attended her first Talbert family reunion, “you are one of us now.” Later he would tell her, “We should have been taking photos all along.”
To see more of Sarah Hoskins’ Kentucky hamlets and her Rosenwald project visit www.sarahhoskins.com