In the plague of lynchings that spread across the Southern United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, few of the victims were women. But there were some noteworthy cases, such as Laura Nelson, who was hung from an Oklahoma Bridge with her son in 1911. Pictures of the crime are the only known images of the lynching of a black woman. Folk musician Woody Guthrie’s father attended the lynching and later joined the Ku Klux Klan, an incident that haunted the singer.
It intrigued another artist: Lexington writer and performer Bianca Spriggs, who wanted to know about the history of women and lynching in Kentucky.
“Kentucky was part of the Union, but later, it started to have these Confederate leanings and deep South leanings, and I wondered why – why the politics of the day seemed to be leaning further South,” Spriggs says.
Through her research, including reading How Kentucky Became Southern by Maryjean Wall, she learned that Kentucky developed an identity with the “Genteel South,” particularly through the horse industry. But those leanings also brought the ugliness of violence against blacks to Kentucky.
“There was a lot of violence, even in Lexington, which I was really surprised to learn, and the Freedman’s bureau, how active they were,” Spriggs says. “That was pretty fascinating to me, because I was a history major at Transy, so I got to roll up my sleeves and find out a lot more.”
Spriggs is bringing all that research back to her alma mater with The Thirteen, a multidisciplinary work that opens this weekend at Transylvania University’s Morlan Gallery. The exhibit includes words by Spriggs and images by her collaborator, Angel Clark.
“I wanted to give the audience the opportunity to connect with the women’s names,” Clark says. “You know, if they just read off names, how do we personally connect with them. They’re not around. We don’t necessarily have pictures of them, so the photographs were important for the project, just to give people a visual reference.”
Clark created a variety of images for the exhibit representing the thirteen female lynching victims Spriggs identified, and there are other elements in the exhibit such as a display of white luggage, representing the women’s entrance into the after life.
And there is Sprigg’s poetry.
A portion of Lynching Postcard reads:
“I want to open her eyes. Tell her one-hundred
years later that she should have been born a gust
of cobalt, a blue ember against the granite
swathe of sky, that she hangs on still as more
than a souvenir.”
In addition to the exhibit, Spriggs developed The Thirteen into a music and spoken-word piece that will be presented Jan. 23 at Transy’s Carrick Theatre, featuring numerous local artists such as singer Michelle Hollis and instrumentalist Willie Eames.
The art in The Thirteen is more representational and less specific than Spriggs initially hoped because the records of lynchings are sketchy.
“It’s harder than it looks,” Spriggs says. “It’s very difficult because some of this material is so embedded and so entrenched it barely made a blip, other than, this happened. So my job as a writer is to try to recreate the circumstances of the day and why the sympathies might have led toward their executions.”
Morlan Gallery director Andrea Fisher says it was important to her to bring Spriggs’ show to the gallery. While the stories of The Thirteen are a century old, she says the issues of violence and women’s rights are still important issues.
“This is a conversation we still need to have, and I think Bianca’s show does that, very poetically,” Fisher says.
Though the show is opening and set to run through February 14, Spriggs says her work on The Thirteen will continue.
She says, “It’s our signal flare into the Universe, because we know that somebody’s grandma was involved, or somebody had an uncle that knew somebody, because we’re in the process now of researching this material so we hope people will come to us and don’t mind us invading their libraries and their courthouses to kind of continue.”
Rich Copley is an arts and culture writer for the Lexington Herald-Leader and LexGo.com.