It was hot . . . very hot . . .when I drove into Owensboro. I had a 4:00 meeting with a US Marshall where I was going to try and get the lay of the land. I’d photographed in Owensboro 40 years ago for the original Kentucky Documentary Photographic Project, and had made several trips back since then; none specifically photographic.
It was 12 days after the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston SC. Race was on my mind. I envisioned Owensboro as more “South” than Louisville. What would I encounter there?
Driving into Owensboro, I looked for a parking place. The Daviess County Courthouse was surrounded with American flags. I found a parking spot behind the courthouse next to the Confederate Soldier’s monument. What was I going to find in Owensboro?
I met with the Marshall. He introduced me to federal District Judge Joseph McKinley. McKinley was nominated to his position by Senator Wendell Ford. Ford had long wanted a federal district court in Owensboro. There had been two previous judges, but they both moved to Louisville rather than stay in Owensboro. McKinley said the only reason Ford nominated him was because he knew he’d stay in Owensboro. Case proven.
Owensboro was getting ready for the 4th of July weekend, hence the flags around the courthouse. There were fireworks stands everywhere, my favorite was on US 60, east of downtown: a large tent with a box truck parked next to it and portalets. The salespeople would sleep in the tent all night, to make sure no one stole their stock. They had a generator to power their TV. Customers appeared sporadically. In between time some of the salespeople amused themselves by jumping their trick bicycles over obstacles.
Downstream from downtown is the Owensboro Riverport, a major barge transshipment facility. Driving by, I’m struck by the massive stockpile of aluminum ingots. In storage at Owensboro Riverport is the largest assemblage of publicly traded aluminum in the United States. The stored aluminum comes from all over the world and is traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange and the London Metal Exchange. At the onset of the great recession, a number of investment banks, with Goldman Sachs being the most prominent, started hoarding aluminum by warehousing it in “stealth” warehouses; warehouses that had no transparency as to their content. Goldman succeeded in cornering and holding 3% of the global aluminum stocks. As the price rose, public warehouses controlled by the London Metal Exchange also began tightening their outflow. All of this drove the price of aluminum up 300%. At the time of my visit, the price was back in the normal range. If the spigot were to be turned off again, the stockpiles would be larger and the price would rise again.
One evening I rode my bicycle downstream from the Riverport on a road threading itself between huge agricultural fields. At my turnaround point I came upon a beautiful tobacco barn, unusual in that it had been painted red. I photographed it with my pocket camera, and made a mental note to come back with a larger camera and rephotograph it.
The next morning I came out with my full camera load and photographed tobacco fields. On my way to the barn I wanted to photograph, I saw a number of people working in another field. I went to that site and found a crew of Hispanic guest workers harvesting cucumbers. It was an interesting procedure. A tractor drove down a lane between two fields. The tractor was towing a wagon on which were huge bins. On either side of the tractor were perpendicular lines of laborers picking cucumbers and putting them into dry wall buckets. When their buckets were filled, they would stand up and each worker would relay his bucket to the next worker, who would then pass it on until it reached the tractor and was loaded into the bin. The bin loader would dump the cucumbers into the bin then toss the bucket back to the line of workers, who in turn, would relay the bucket back to the original picker.
The cucumber field is one of several thousand acres of leased agricultural land. The tractor driver is the teenage nephew of the farmer who leases all the land. His uncle farms tobacco, soybeans, corn, cucumbers and other garden crops. He employs his laborers year round. They live in off site housing, and few speak English.
In 1977 there was a dynamic Owensboro city seal painted on the side of a building. I arranged for the mayor and city council members to meet me one afternoon and have their portrait made in front of the mural. The mural faced west, and the sun was glaring into the mayor and city council members’ eyes. Waiting for me to ask them to pose, everyone had their hands up on their foreheads, shielding their eyes. That turned out to be the picture. On this trip, I wanted to restage that photograph. The original mural is gone, but there is a similar full building glass mural with a map of Kentucky. I met with the mayor, Ron Payne, to arrange to do the photograph on Friday evening after he and the council members had cut the ribbon on a new “pier” section of the Owensboro Riverwalk.
The ribbon cutting was to take place at 5:00. At 4:00 the clouds darkened. At 4:30 it was storming. The band set up on the wharf withdrew to the coverage of the Convention Center. The Mayor and City Commission members were dutifully assembled to cut the ribbon, hoping the rain would abate. The rain didn’t abate, so they walked out on the wharf and cut the ribbon in the rain.
I restaged the Mayor and City Council (now City Commissioner) photo inside the Owensboro Convention Center. It would have been much better outside with no rain and the glass mural.
Pam Smith-Wright is a City Commissioner. Pam is vivacious and a real Owensboro booster. She was an Owensboro high school track star and was elected as the first African American City Commissioner. Pam was also the first woman to serve as Mayor Pro Tem of Owensboro. I photographed Pam and fellow Commissioner Deborah May Nunley together.
I spent the 4th of July at Diamond Lake Resort. Diamond Lake is owned by Brian and Laurie Smith. Brian was a police officer in southern California, looking for a change of venue. He found Diamond Lake on the internet, visited and bought it. What a change of scene: from LA to rural Daviess County Kentucky. Brian has gone from being a police officer to a camp counselor and activity director. Diamond Lake consists of 157 acres, 270 RV campsites, multiple lakes, go cart tracks, bumper boats, music theater, restaurant, disc golf course, motel and cottages. Many people park their trailer or RV there for the summer and come to Diamond Lake for the weekend or extended vacations. A number of guests also have golf carts, which is the preferred method of transportation around Diamond Lake.
Brian Smith shines on the 4th. It’s his day. The activities started with a pie-eating contest. There were a number of contestants who had competed in previous years who knew the secret of flipping the pie out of its pie pan and eating it off the table covering.
The Chicken Chucking Competition followed the pie-eating contest. For this event, raw plucked chicken carcasses are placed in a washtub full of cooking oil. Contestants come up singly to the washtub and pick up an oil soaked chicken. The contestant carries the chicken to a starting line, and hurls the chicken as far as she can out onto a field that has hashmarks every 5 yards. The contestants were divided into groups: kids under 12, adult men and adult women. Spectators lined the field in their golf carts.
A balloon toss followed the chicken chucking. Brian, the master of ceremonies, thoroughly enjoyed MC’ing all of the events. And, all of the contestants seemed to love Brian.
I left Diamond Lake and went upstream on the Ohio to take pictures of the William Natcher Bridge northeast of Owensboro crossing to Rockport Indiana. I liked the juxtaposition of the farm fields, modern bridge structure and state of the art American Electric Power plant in the background.
Owensboro has made a significant investment in its waterfront, constructing a ¾ mile long ribbon park, Smothers Park. The 4th promised entertainment by the Owensboro Symphony, other bands, and fireworks. My guess is that there were 20-30,000 people assembled on the waterfront. I spent my time cruising the crowd, taking pictures of whatever caught my eye. I was struck at the racial makeup of the crowd. If I had been at Waterfront Park in Louisville I would have seen large clusters of African Americans together, and similarly large clusters of white people together. In Owensboro it was different. African Americans and Latinos were mixed in with white groups. Sometimes they were independent, but most often the groups were racially mixed. I saw a number of inter-racial couples, many with children. These are things I would not have seen forty years ago.
As the evening progressed, I made my way to the Convention Center pier to photograph the fireworks. There, I encountered City Commissioners Pam Smith-Wright and Jeff Sanford. I told Pam of my observations on racial mixing, and asked her what she thought the difference was between Owensboro and Louisville. Her response was that the African American population is small, 5%. By being such a small minority African Americans and whites were more inclined to mix.
I told Pam that I planned to photograph Blessed Sacrament Chapel, a predominantly African American Catholic Church on Sunday, the next day. Jeff, who is white, piped in that Blessed Sacrament was his church.
On Sunday I showed up at Blessed Sacrament Chapel. It’s a small church. The story I heard was that it was traditionally the Catholic African American church, then the bishop closed it because the congregation was too small. The African American community petitioned the bishop and got it reopened.
The interior of the church has pictures of black saints, most notably St. Martin de Porres. The congregation streams in. I’m struck by the racial makeup of the congregation . . . it’s 70% white. The priest is an East Indian, Father Suneeesh Mathew. The choir has 5-6 people, all African American. The service starts with a hymn, “Jesus loves me that I know, because the Bible tells me so.” A hymn I have never heard sung in a Catholic Church. At one point there is an anointing of the sick. The priest goes out into the congregation and anoints the foreheads of those who have signaled they want to be healed. A nurse accompanies the priest and lays her hands on the petitioner. Again, this is something I have never seen in a Catholic church. A parishioner reads the Gospel. He reads it in the manner of a gospel preacher . . . again, not the Catholic I knew. This is a church that combines various traditions, making for a very meaningful service.
Communion happens, and the congregants stream to the altar. Black hands giving communion to white worshipers. How things have changed. Sunday morning has been called the most segregated time in America. Here in Owensboro it was the opposite.
I leave Owensboro, driving back to Louisville, thinking on what I have experienced. I drove into Owensboro expecting the Old South. I left Owensboro having seen the New South.