Monday, September 21, 2015

Do You See What I See?

There is nothing sadder than a once in a lifetime opportunity lost forever. Communities all over the country would gladly give a small portion of their budget for the synergistic epitome of history, education, and engagement that lies within grasp in Flat Run Veterans Park. I’m not just talking about a quaint old house in a park, I’m talking about award winning potential that is unique to the region and creates a truly beautiful park that honors our veterans, including the Veteran that originally settled and had Ridgeway built in 1817.

So what do I see? I see a 200 year old 9,000 square foot community space that celebrates our heritage like no other place in our community. I see Cynthiana being a leader in progressive learning approaches that teach our children the importance of valuing all cultural contributions. A place that shares a legacy of pioneer spirit, military dedication, civic involvement, historic preservation, and life.

Yes, I said a legacy of life. Heritage cannot be relegated to books and a few renovated structures. It must be celebrated and welcomed into our lives on a regular basis, or we are in danger of losing our very foundation. How do we teach children about the early history of Cynthiana, and the many lives that made our own possible? There is no better way than ensuring the important places of history are protected and restored to a vibrant presence within the community.
The key component is vibrant presence. I see the latter Master Plan as it was drawn up over a decade ago, with the beautifully restored home of a veteran at the top of the hill, with amphitheater and American Flag waving nearby. The special moments that would take place in the park would not just be about sports, but family gatherings where special events and milestones would cement Flat Run Veteran’s Park as a Cynthiana icon for generations to come.

I also see an award winning permanent exhibit inside the house. While its beautiful hand carved moldings, and solid chestnut floors welcomed those celebrating life events and participating in civic meetings, a deeper message would be a partner in the experience. Designed in such a way that the history behind the house would forever connect the community back to its heritage: All chapters of its heritage. Including the chapters that are uncomfortable but necessary in the growth of a community.

Our country and society are changing. For some, this change seems harsh, too fast, or even disrespectful of the traditions we have attempted to preserve for many years. But for others, the change is long overdue. For hundreds of years we have secured the remembrance of some while ignoring the contributions of others. Ridgeway is such a place that can tell a story unlike any other in town or the region.

Make no mistake, the carvings and hand hewn logs, foundation, and seamless chestnut floors are all products of labor by the enslaved. Their story is not unknown. Yet, their story has been hidden, held captive by years of dismissive and divisive habits, many of them intentional. With hundreds of years of discrimination comes neglect, defensiveness, willful ignorance, and dishonest explanations to reason away the treatment.
Cynthiana’s history with slavery is not as complex as we might hope. When the Civil War broke out, the courthouse was the scene of an event that solidified the official stance of the community. The Confederate flag was ceremoniously marched to the courthouse and raised above the structure to great celebration. The newspaper was run by a known Confederate sympathizer, and the existence of Camp Frazer created in Ridgeway’s fields by the Union Army was due to local attempts at thwarting the movements of Federal arms to loyal populations in Tennessee.

Camp Frazer was a paradox of loyalties. Pro-Union, yet unabashed slave owner, Ridgeway’s second owner represented the duality of Kentucky’s allegiance. Dr. Frazer allowed his property to be used as a Union encampment while maintaining and protecting his enslaved labor force. This is a prime example of how Lincoln kept Kentucky’s official allegiance, even when many of her citizens were not ready to give up slavery.

Ridgeway’s first owner chose to leave a slave state to give his family a new life, and his formerly enslaved workers a future. But in 2015, Cynthiana had the chance to give those formerly enslaved individuals a voice. A chance to be remembered, to have their story told. Because, you see, I see a story emancipated. A story finally liberated from the recesses of willful avoidance.

From my vantage point of 2015 I have seen over a decade of various citizens with plans, money, and voices raised to preserve a vital piece of our heritage. Only after years of support had the real story begun to rise to the surface. As such, the real story, despite its connection to the abolitionist movement and national historical figures, has not been as welcomed as it should. Discovery of chains in the basement resulted in a positive and educational visit from officials at the Underground Railroad Museum just to our north. Despite their overwhelming support in favor of saving the house, many local opinions were embarrassed by the “proof” of slavery in such a prominent place, which fueled the fires of those who wanted to erase the story all over again. If the house is demolished and erased from view, so too would the tangible reminder of slavery be relegated to the history books in the library.

That misguided and prideful opinion has no place in 2015. Just last fall former Mayor Moses stated that the house needed to come down because the “black people have suffered enough.” To that argument, I would say you are passing up the opportunity of a lifetime and choosing to bury the existence of ancestors who never had a chance to speak for themselves due to the chains we placed on them in life.

The past few years have brought great change in the area of dialogue and healing. I would cautiously remind everyone that healing is by no means finished, and indeed is just beginning. This generation is witnessing a new chapter to the Civil Rights movement that has been too long in coming. Questions are being asked, conversations are being had, and painful lessons are being learned. In many ways, I would say scales are beginning to drop from the eyes of many. Those who question our generational preservation and celebration of a flag that represented a rebellious government designed to keep people enslaved are now also willing to openly talk about the deep implications of having a large portion of our population in bondage. That “history” that has been deemed unimportant or insignificant to the sporting needs of the community is not exactly history. The repercussions are ongoing and still with us today, in so many ways.
On the cusp of this change, driving and supporting the healing forces behind it are those who teach and preserve history. Their very profession is dependent upon analyzing and evaluating the complex paths of history and its effects on our lives today. The connection of history to our current condition as a society is the foundation of history lessons taught in schools across the country. Teachers strive to demonstrate the reality of present day historical implications in memorable ways. Those in the history profession are beginning to address the challenging issues of slavery in such a way that brings the stories of the enslaved out into the light of freedom. Exhibits, special tours, panel sessions, and inclusive representation are tools used to help our society move forward in a healthy way. Without these important steps to help guide the engagement, feelings of hostility on both sides could remain dominant. As a result of these changes in the history field conferences are springing up, articles are being written, awards are being bestowed, and grants are being awarded to those who embrace this inclusive method of heritage building. Since these changes have only just begun over the past few years, the larger historic sites are the front runners in this area. The smaller sites are just beginning their dialogue about this issue.
Cynthiana had the opportunity to become one of those frontrunners. One of those awarded for bravely embracing their history and liberating the voices of all of its ancestors. While celebrating their Veterans in the park they could be celebrating their diverse heritage in a lasting way that provides an educational legacy that will strengthen the community. I see a beautifully restored Ridgeway Community Center whose purpose is to actively build a healthy community through inclusive interpretation and respectful dialog. A place that is used as a creative and engaging space that ties the future generations back to their roots. And just for the record, statewide/regional organizations have offered to help with this effort, signaling long term support and success.

Many today who cling to the symbolism of the Confederate flag insisting that the Civil War was not about slavery actively deny the real history behind the flag and the War. They also deny the feelings of those who have known that flag to represent acts of hate. But somewhere in the middle ground, there lies the truth. The flag did fly over an army that fought to keep slaves, but the argument they used to honor their fallen soldiers was one that attempted to give meaning to a potentially senseless death. Our Federal government was so worried that a lasting peace may not be attainable that they allowed the surviving army to go home fully armed, with heads held high, signing an oath of allegiance. From our 2015 vantage point we can see that everyone was worried that the broken family bond may not heal if we did not welcome our rebellious brothers back with open arms. This is why monuments, statues, and flags still exist in nostalgic celebration.

We are their children, and the stories celebrated were those of a majority who wished to honor their heritage. All the while we chose to ignore the heritage of those whose voices were not as strong due to the prejudices imposed well after slavery. Like so many of our ancestral families that were split 150 years ago, my ancestry is split. I am a daughter of the North and the South, having ancestors that fought on both sides. I grew up with one ballet shoe in the north, and one booted foot in the south. I love both and am not an advocate for vilifying our ancestors. But I am a very passionate advocate for healing through inclusive history; Peace through sharing all perspectives, and introspection that grows a stronger yet empathetic community.

When the world became outraged over the physical destruction of ancient heritage sites due to religious extremism, we were left powerless. The artistry and cultural significance of such sites belongs to humanity and tells our stories from their earliest chapters. Unfortunately, a few decided that their beliefs did not match the significance viewed by the rest of the world. So they chose to destroy the heritage of all, regardless of the majority of world opinion that wanted to save them for future generations.

As the U.S. has now moved into a precarious cultural storm of hostile dialog and inflamed opinions backed by violence, we have a new historic opportunity. Instead of following the destructive path that renders heritage sites to rubble, it would have been wonderful to see Cynthiana/Harrison County officials follow the vocal majority of those from around the city, county, state, and country who have urged you to see the importance and future benefit of melding inclusive history with community needs to grow a better society. Sadly, in all of the years that I have witnessed the “struggle” to save Ridgeway, I have only seen local voices raised in support. Not one voice has attended any of the meetings to advocate for demolition. Voices for demolition have only come from county/city officials who quote hearsay, movie scenarios, and fearful speculation void of hard facts. Recently county officials brought up a new petition taken around town to gather 300 signatures in favor of demolition, and yet each time, they ignore the over 2500 that have been gathered for restoration. Time after time, experts, state officials, architects, and historians have provided solid plans to bring Ridgeway back to its prominent place in our community.
There is no rule that says the county or city has to work with us, the Harrison County Heritage Council, despite our business plans, grants, and fund raising. In my mind, this house has a level of importance and unique history that should automatically secure its restoration and protection. If the city/county wants to move forward on their own, the Heritage Council would be more than happy to work with them as partners to fund the operation. Unfortunately, I see an empty space at the top of the hill, where an amazing piece of Kentucky’s history once stood. Bulldozers cannot erase the history and will instead provide a horrible ending to the story that will soon be told in its entirety. Instead of a city/county winning awards for its forward thinking, it will be regretfully noted for its destruction of state and national history.

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