Lexington, Kentucky – For Sarah Williams, revolution is as much about recognizing the past as it is about what will follow.
The 38-year-old civic change agent and organizer from Lexington, Ky., Has been at the forefront of racial justice protests for years. But she is also working to save black communities in her hometown from gentrification and, at the same time, preserve her family history and her community’s past.
Tough times “remind you of the shoulders you stand on,” Williams says, reflecting on last year. From raising his children during COVID lockdowns to his arrest during protests against police brutality in July 2020 has definitely taken its toll on Williams. But it’s in these difficult times that she draws on the teachings of those on whose shoulders she stands, especially those of her 94-year-old grandmother, Grandmother Mary “Sue” Taylor.
“Living through his childhood before the civil rights movement, there is just a certain amount of courage, endurance and persistence, that no matter what, you will conquer,” Williams says, emphasizing the spirituality of his. grandmother and her deep roots in the Black Church.
“Much like what our ancestors did when they fled slavery and headed north, there is a certain amount of faith and courage that comes with this journey,” Williams tells Al Jazeera. “And so in many ways, I continue this with me today.”
The pure and simple truth
In his work on the front lines of today’s racial justice movement, Williams is unafraid of confrontation. But its goal is to tell a truth that ultimately changes the way people think and act.
“When we reveal truths it can seem very brutal and aggressive,” she says. “But I’m just trying to remind people that we’re not here to inflict physical damage. It might be what it feels like, ”she adds,“ but we’re here to change your mindset… and pull on your heartstrings. “
It’s a lesson she learned from her grandmother, who always tells the “plain truth,” Williams explains. “She doesn’t mince her words and I think when you do social justice work it actually disturbs people’s comfort zone.”
Williams shouts these truths in the streets during protests, but she also reveals them in her research and work on the displacement of black communities in and around Lexington.
Williams, who also has her nursing degree, first noticed gentrification in Lexington and its effects on her community in 2014 when she returned to the city while pursuing her masters degree. “I didn’t feel at home,” she recalls. Williams says she walked the streets where she grew up and people looked at her like she didn’t belong to her own neighborhood.
At that point, she began her research to understand why and how the displacement of historically black communities – neighborhoods with roots dating back to the days of the Civil War – was happening, as well as to reveal and expose the developers, or “colonizers” behind it. .
“There was this extreme and overwhelming sense of loss of community among the people who stayed, and I wanted to organize to save whatever we could,” Williams recalls.
Williams and other members of the community organized fry and other fundraisers to find the capital needed to save any old buildings – even those that were “run down” – so they could keep their history. But due to many factors, including the “red tape” to reduce and the increase in property values, they have had little success.
This is a frustrating result, especially as black neighbors are being pushed further and further to the outskirts of the city and into neighboring towns. “It’s like that same level of availability that has been inherent in white supremacy and gentrification,” Williams says. “It also affects our ability to find our history. So how do you know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been? “
Preserving the past
On a deeply personal level, documenting and preserving his own family history has become particularly pressing for Williams in recent months. Grandmother Sue, the woman Williams says inspires her in everything she does, was recently released from the hospital to a hospice as she “moves into the spiritual realm,” Williams says.
Grandma Sue grew up in Huntertown, Ky., Less than 15 miles outside of Lexington. Huntertown, like many historically black communities in this part of Kentucky, was known as a “free city,” which was established by freed slaves after the Civil War.
The small black community existed for over 100 years, but when construction began on a new road not far from the community in the 1960s, the area was inundated, causing raw sewage to be discharged from its septic tanks. In the early 2000s, many families still living in Huntertown were relocated and the buildings razed.
Today, Huntertown consists mainly of grasslands and forests. Local residents are working to turn the area into a park and document its history along the way.
Williams has visited Huntertown on several occasions over the past few months.
“Part of what I’m doing now is an effort to help preserve the story of my grandmother’s story,” Williams says. “My grandmother’s story, in itself, is tied to knowing the history of the communities that we are losing and that so many my age might not know the full story and fill in those gaps, and work also to cling to a rest of this community. “
As she works to document the history of Huntertown and her family, Williams, with help from Grandmama Sue, continues to piece together their past and find inspiration to move forward.
Recently, Williams found out that she shared the name of one of her ancestors. “It was just a really wrapped up moment that confirmed my existence beyond anything I’ve ever thought of,” she says. “I am truly my ancestors, literally by name. It’s just a very powerful feeling.
In another discovery, she learned that her great-grandfather, Grandma’s father Sue, had taken legal action after his buggy was hit by a car in the early 1900s. “It was just amazing for me to find her and be able to call her and confirm the information, ”says Williams.
“My ancestors knew who they were and they knew their worth, and they were ready to fight for it,” she adds. “To find all this history and to be able to discuss it with my grandmother and so that she can share stories, it is all the strength that I need to continue this fight for liberation, for freedom and equality . “
As Williams continues this fight, she will forever keep her grandmother Sue and everything she taught in her heart.
“Even sitting here and taking care of her in these times, there are times when I’m like, ‘Grandma, I love you so much,’ and she’ll say, ‘Love yourself.’ or ‘I love myself,’ “says Williams.
“I think it’s so important for us to remember that – that we can’t give from an empty cup, and the root of the revolution is love,” she adds. “It is really the purpose of this revolution that we are seeking: to know that we must have this love within us before we can spread it in the community and the people around us.