Juneteenth. June 19, 2020. Demonstrators in Louisville march to both commemorate the day and to call out the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and a list of others who had been killed by the police. The march left Liberty Square and proceeded to the site of Roots 101 African American Museum on West Main Street, Museum Row.
The museum’s founder, Lamont Collins, came out to speak. He told the story of the Museum, why it needed to be, and asked the marchers to help with its creation. Then he brought out artifacts that will be on display at the museum: a set of shackles with chains, and a slave collar. I had never seen anything so horrific as that slave collar. The collar was put around an enslaved person’s neck, with the purpose of impeding, or making it impossible to escape. You couldn’t run and hide if that was locked on your neck.
Days later I made contact with Mr. Collins and told him I’d like to photograph him with the slave collar. He readily agreed.
Several years ago, Mr. Collins was listening to NPR and heard a story about Oran Z. Belgrave, a man in California who had a museum filled with African American artifacts. Urban renewal took the museum, and the man placed his entire collection in 12 shipping containers that he stored in the Mojave Desert. Lamont heard the story and called the Mr. Belgrave. Lamont told him that he had always wanted to start an African American museum, and that he would take the collector’s collection and start a museum in Louisville. On the phone, Mr. Belgrave began crying and told Lamont that this was the answer to his prayers.
Mr. Collins has been a collector since he was 10. His father owned a construction company and his mother worked in the Federal Building in Louisville. She witnessed men coming in for their draft physicals during the 60s. Mrs. Collins sought out Louisville’s athletes reporting for their physicals: Wesley Unseld, Cassius Clay, and got their autographs. This was the start of Mr. Collins’ collection.
Over the years he collected more and more, always housed in his home. He felt it was his mission to explain the African American story to his visitors. To tell “the other half of the story.” Items in his personal collection became the talking points for the African American experience.
Lamont’s phone call to Mr. Belgrave was a godsend for both. Lamont started Roots 101 a year ago, housed in three floors on West Main Street. The museum’s planned opening this year has been delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.