A Celebration of Connection and Discovery: Kenton County Public Library
Kenton County Public Library (KCPL), CCDI’s inaugural Libraries, Archives, Museums awardee, began their project in April 2022. Ann Schoenenberger, a Digital Librarian at Kenton County Public Library, and Jameela Salaah, a Program Manager for the Center for Great Neighborhoods, worked in partnership to bring the project together. They also enlisted the assistance of Artists-in-Residence with ties to the Eastside Covington, Kentucky community.
Their project, “Crafting Stories, Making History: The African American Experience in Covington, KY” preserves and centers the experiences of residents from Covington’s historically Black Eastside neighborhood. The project supported artist residencies, mini-grants, and community fellowship programs. Through school activities and community events, residents created works inspired by Eastside and its relationship to Library materials.
The H.A.T. (History, Art & Technology) Lab, a weekly after-school program conducted at Eastside Covington elementary schools, allowed students to make personal connections to the Library’s digital collections. The team developed activities and paired Library materials based on students’ interests. In one of the schools, the team focused on photography and explored Gordon Parks’ photographs.
Jameela, who led the program, says that one of the goals for the Center for Great Neighborhoods is to “help Covington kids see themselves as leaders who can positively influence their community, regardless of age.” By using the VIA Character Strengths tool, youth can identify strengths and develop them together with others in their community. Support from CCDI gave students “access to a vast database of knowledge and information” and allowed them to “pair these learnings with character strengths.”
Connecting their strengths to Library items helped students see how their strengths aligned with historical figures such as Rosa Parks. These materials served as inspiration for students, who created collages, comic books, and other works as they drew their own connections to history. Some students learned about the methodology of oral history storytelling to “explore the meaning of audio to record history.”
KCPL hosted webinars featuring Karen Walfall and Dr. Todd Harvey, Library staff from the Local History and Genealogy section and the American Folklife Center, respectively. Walfall’s presentation, “Discovering Your African American Family History at the Library of Congress,” provided an overview of the strategies and Library collections that can help patrons research their family history. Harvey’s presentation, “Searching the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress,” shared research methods and Library services available to patrons who are interested in Kentucky materials.
KCPL worked with four Artists-in-Residence who developed creative projects. The artists used a range of Library materials, including items from the Works and Progress Administration collection, baseball cards, Black newspapers, and more and paired them with community and local archives. Jameela noted that Library materials only represented a small part of Eastside Covington’s history. She emphasized that this underscores how it important is to “retain and preserve all we learn of Covington Eastside’s history.”
phrie worlds is a curator whose methods are guided by intuition and “zooming in and zooming out” to better understand the interconnecting relationships between her research subjects. She is interested in the concept of borderlands and the intersecting cultures that occur across those borders.
When asked about her work, she replied, “One of the underlying goals of my work is to explore the role of place on identity and to explore regional identity in the Ohio Valley, especially Black identity, in this 981-mile borderlands. This research has granted me much insight into understanding what unites Black experiences in the region as well as the things that make us different and diverse.”
As a KCPL artist, she focused on engagement strategy and ideation, curatorial consulting, and independent research. During her residency, she also conducted exploratory research to begin a Legacy Edition publication of The Suspension Press, a Black newspaper based in Northern Kentucky and published by her aunt, Patricia Humphries-Fann.
During a visit to the Library last summer, phrie, Ann, and Jameela met with staff from the Library’s Prints and Photographs Reading Room. phrie was surprised to discover the vast resources in the Farm Security Administration collection, noting that the collection “stood out to me since my research focuses on black agricultural labor in Kentucky and the Ohio Valley.”
Kareem Simpson is an established author who has published several works, including a novel entitled Chronicles of a Boy Misunderstood (2013) and most recently, a stage play called Bro’Kin RIVER (2021). As part of his residency with KCPL, he worked on a new novel, Moon Song, which takes place in Covington’s Eastside neighborhood during 1988.
He explored African American newspapers from the Library’s Chronicling America collection. While researching Kenton County’s newspaper holdings, he even found an article from 1988 where Pam Mullins, a local resident, was running for the Covington School Board. She gave him his high school diploma when he graduated.
Brandon Black is an illustrator and educator. It was through his father-in-law, Howard “Jack” Hill, that he learned about the distinctions between Covington and East Covington.
Brandon also learned that Jack was one of the founders of the Eastside Covington’s Old Timers’ Reunion. The annual event was initially an opportunity for older adults in the community to get together and bring together alumni of Lincoln Grant School. Jack, who attended the school prior to integration, hopes that Old Timers can expand into a week-long, inter-generational event, with youth having a crucial role.
Today, Old Timers’ welcomes current and former Eastside residents to participate in cookouts, volunteer activities, and sports tournaments, such as the traditional softball game. Hearing and recording Jack’s stories prompted Brandon to think about how he could honor the community’s elders.
While exploring the Lowell Folklife Project Collection, he wondered if there were African American versions of such collections. After being inspired by the Benjamin K. Edwards Collection of Baseball Cards, he created illustrated baseball cards featuring residents who participated in the Old Timers’ softball game.
Isaiah Armstrong is a photographer whose black and white photography highlights personal moments of everyday people. Of his work, Isaiah said that he wants to be able to see Eastside Covington, his home, in all of its beauty and to be the artist that captures that beauty for others to see.
During his residency, he taught students photography skills during the H.A.T. Lab sessions. Students explored Gordon Parks’ photos, documented his work, and recreated photos Parks had taken. “From there, youth were able to ‘strength spot,’” says Jameela. “They would say things like, ‘He uses his strength of Creativity and Appreciation of Beauty and Excellence when he takes photos.’ They were able to make the connection to their own lives and state what strengths they use with their own passions.”
One memorable moment was when students assumed that black-and-white photos indicated that the event, place, or person was “old.” After realizing they could take black-and-white images of their classmates in the present, to say they were surprised is an understatement!
Emmanuel Gray and Mae Rice, both Covington residents, were recipients of KCPL’s mini-grants.
Emmanuel, who has worked with the community previously, will create a digital archive that will preserve the memories of local residents. Mae is a long-time resident of the Eastside neighborhood and is “known as a community leader to all.” Rice will use the funds to “host a community celebration and memory session of Dr. James E. Randolph, the first Black doctor to practice out of Covington.” Emmanuel and Mae, who have been working together closely with “Juggie” Lewis, another resident, will host the community and memory session in late May.
KCPL’s work culminated in a Spring Celebration, held earlier this month at the Lincoln Grant Scholar House. The event, which saw attendees from the community, began with an exhibition of artwork created by students and Artists-in-Residence.
A panel featuring KCPL’s Artists-in-Residence explored how the artists approached their work, their experience with the Library’s collections, and the significance of preserving Eastside Covington’s history. When asked about preserving that history, Isaiah said that he wanted to “be at the feet of [his] elders to learn from them and their stories.”
When asked about their most significant moments as Artists-in-Residence, Kareem and Brandon acknowledged the time and space it gave them to complete their work. Brandon, who illustrates professionally, said the award gave him the opportunity to finally create personal artwork that was meaningful to him.
The artists also emphasized the importance of youth to carrying the past and present preservation work forward. But Kareem acknowledged: “Not everyone is interested in the history like us. We’re nerds in the best possible way.” One of the artists suggested that we uplift youth to be the best versions of themselves and let them find their way to the history. Isaiah noted that most things he learned in life were from his grandfather. He suggested youth engage with elders or others who hold knowledge to something they might be interested in, which would introduce them to the community history.
On the second day, Jack Hill was recognized for his community contributions, and Mae Rice, Juggie Lewis, and Emmanuel Gray were recognized as mini-grant recipients. The event ended with a performance by the Northern Kentucky Brotherhood Singers, who belted out lyrics to songs such as the gospel song,“I’ll Meet You in the Morning” and “My Girl,” by the Temptations.
While their project has concluded, this is just the beginning for the KCPL team. Kareem, Isaiah, and Brandon plan to collaborate in an effort to document the history of Eastside Covington. Ann and Jameela also plan to continue their collaboration, with even more activities in the schools.
CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This four-year program provides financial and technical support to individuals, institutions and organizations to create imaginative projects using the Library’s digital collections and centering one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here.