From Louisville to Appalachia: Celebrating Our Common Heritage

“From Louisville to Appalachia: Celebrating Our Common Heritage” was scheduled to be the first event of the Jefferson County Chapter’s Louisville Loves Mountains Week, a series of events leading up to the I Love Mountains Day march and rally at the State Capitol in Frankfort. Inclement weather led to the postponement of the event, but thankfully all of the performers and speakers were available to come out on March 17.  

“From Louisville to Appalachia” was a celebration of Kentucky’s African American heritage in Appalachia. Kentucky writers, musicians, and speakers were invited to share their work and personal stories in celebration of the unique natural beauty, ecological importance, and cultural heritage of Kentucky's Appalachian Mountains and mountain communities.


Cassia Herron, board president of Community Farm Alliance and Richmond, Kentucky native, emceed the event and also shared her family’s story of being tied to the land. Tarsha Semakula’s reading of her poem “I am Louisville” mesmerized the audience. Tarsha is a poet, writer, entrepreneur, and founder and executive director of The Buttafly Center, a community agency that is dedicated to the empowerment of women via education and training, communal resources, and personal development.

Benny Massey and Rutland Melton, members of the Harlan County Chapter of KFTC, came to Louisville to share their vision for Appalachia’s Bright Future, talking about their work in Benham and Lynch to protect the area’s clean water and promote energy efficiency. Benny is a member of the Lynch City Council and Rutland is Harlan County’s representative on KFTC’s statewide steering committee. Benny also spoke about the Eastern Kentucky Social Club, an African American club formed in 1970 with chapters across the country that come together for an annual Labor Day weekend reunion. 

""From Louisville to Appalachia was one of the most inspiring and affirming programs I have experienced in the 23 years since I left the mountains and moved to the city. Both the program participants and the audiences included folks of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities who wanted to learn more about the cultural bonds binding the coalfields to the banks of the Ohio. It inspired joy and hope for real change in Kentucky.”

Next Matisa Wilbon, associate professor of Sociology at Bellarmine University and a community leader in Louisville, shared her story of growing up in Hazard. She confirmed for the audience that the television show Dukes of Hazzard was indeed based on her hometown and that black people do live in Hazard. She spoke about learning to cherish her eastern Kentucky roots and being thankful for the tight knit community that raised her. Louisville native Amber Burns shared two poems in celebration of black womanhood and racial diversity. She says that she uses poetry as a platform to comment on social issues in America. 

KFTC members also took to the stage to talk about the organization's local and statewise work. Members Sean Hardy and Martha Flack teamed up to highlight the Jefferson County Chapter’s efforts to improve air quality and address economic justice issues in Metro Louisville. Member Mary Love read KFTC’s vision statement and talked about why she is passionate about KFTC's work. She encouraged others in the room to join KFTC and help build New Power in Kentucky. Members also sold raffle tickets to help raise funds for the organization. Five winners received items donated by local businesses Why Louisville, Consider Boutique, Grateful Goat Winery, Bourbon Barrel Foods, and Garage Bar.

The event was held at Hillbilly Tea, a 2-year-old Appalachian tea café in downtown Louisville, with a second location in Shanghai. Hillbilly Tea graciously donated the use of their entire space for the event and served up some mountain inspired tea cuisine and tea hooch throughout the evening. Owner Karter Louis welcomed everyone to Hillbilly Tea and announced that he was so impressed by KFTC’s work and the evening festivities that he wants his restaurant to become an organizational member of KFTC.

Musician Randy Wilson, who joined us from Knott County, kicked off the musical portion of the evening entertainment. Randy has been a member of KFTC and a folk artist in Eastern Kentucky schools for more than 25 years. He is currently the Folks Arts Director at Hindman Settlement School. Randy shared the African American roots of Kentucky’s folk music and the African origins of the banjo. Randy performed several songs, including “This Little Light of Mine.” One woman in the audience shared that she hadn’t heard some of the songs since her great grandmother sung them to her more than 50 years ago. 

Cast and creative team members from the new play Steel Hammer were also in the audience. This SITI production had its premiere at Actors Theatre of Louisville just two days later. Actor Eric Berryman, who portrays the Appalachian folk hero John Henry in the play, could be seen clapping and singing along to Randy’s rendition of  “Take This Hammer”.

Louisville native Cynthia Fletcher wrapped up evening with a rousing performance. She was joined by her son Tylor and her cousin Vera. Cynthia has been on a life journey of singing and playing music to educate and transcend cultural barriers. She has also conducted extensive ethnographic studies of African American women with connections to the mountain dulcimer and Appalachia. Cynthia has traced her roots to east Tennessee and she and her family members participate in the annual Kentucky Music Weekend. She led the audience through several songs, including Bernice Johnson Reagon’s song “Ella’s Song" The program ended with a sea of smiles and people wanting more. Sara Soltau and Randy Wilson led a jam session following the formal program and were joined by several local musicians.

Judi Jennings, Jefferson County chapter member and executive director of Kentucky Foundation for Women said, "From Louisville to Appalachia was one of the most inspiring and affirming programs I have experienced in the 23 years since I left the mountains and moved to the city. Both the program participants and the audiences included folks of all ages, backgrounds and ethnicities who wanted to lean more about the cultural bonds binding the coalfields to the banks of the Ohio. It inspired joy and hope for real change in Kentucky.”

Another attendee said, “I was in awe over and over again. The room was packed, standing room only, and people were totally engaged with everything happening on the stage."

About a hundred people attended the event and the Jefferson County chapter raised more than $750, bringing the grassroots fundraising total for Louisville Loves Mountains Week to $1,900! The chapter hopes the make this week of events bigger and better in 2015.

Click here to view more photos from Louisville Loves Mountains Week

Click here to view another performance by  Cynthia and Vera