Back Home in Old Kentucky – Bailey Vandiver

Image by, and used with permission of, Jonathan Palmer

Kentucky governor Happy Chandler once said Kentuckians are always either coming home or thinking about coming home. On the day that tornadoes devastated my home state, I was longing to be home.

It was December 11, 2021, and I woke up in a New York City hotel room to the news that tornadoes had ripped through my hometown and my state. Seventeen people died in Bowling Green, where I was born and raised. My friend Mohammad was sitting in his living room when debris tore through his bedroom wall. My parents, two youngest siblings, and dog stayed in the coat closet until the worst of the wind passed.

Away from home and any weather alerts I would have gotten, I hadn’t even known bad weather was coming. As a friend and I enjoyed our last day in New York City – seeing the Rockefeller Christmas tree, building LEGO figures, eating pizza – I had obsessed over social media posts about the damage.

“Living away from my native place I became more consciously Kentuckian than I was when I lived at home,” wrote Kentucky writer bell hooks in Becoming: A Culture of Place. Just away on a short trip, and surrounded by people with no connection to Kentucky, I felt this strongly. I wanted to tell the people next to me at the restaurant that my beautiful state was in ruins. I wanted Times Square to be lit up with concern for my home. 

Our flights home were that day, from LaGuardia to Detroit to Louisville. By the time we sat in the Detroit airport around 10 p.m., waiting to board our flight that had already been delayed twice, I was exhausted – not just from a day of tourism and traveling, but also from the emotions I was feeling. I was heartbroken, of course, but also angry. In addition to the outpouring of love and support on social media, I also saw posts that said Kentucky deserved this destruction – for being backwards, for being ignorant, for voting for McConnell or Paul or Trump. I wondered where these people’s compassion had gone. Hadn’t they seen the devastating images my friends were taking and sharing?

It had just become Sunday by the time I got back to my home in Lexington, where I moved when I started college six years ago. Fellow Kentuckian Tyler Childers has a lyric I love about Kentucky Sundays: “You remind me of a Sunday, back home in old Kentucky.”

After returning from New York, I spent four days in Lexington – mostly snuggling with my cats below my Kentucky-themed gallery wall. On December 15, I went all the way home, to my parents’ house in Bowling Green. As I reached the first of the Bowling Green exits on the interstate, I could see flashes of destruction – tarps flapping on damaged roofs, fallen tree branches.

Once I got home, I stepped out the back door with our dog, Bluegrass. I let him run around as I sat on the wooden swing that had once swung on my great-grandparents’ porch.

I had never been so grateful to be home.

“Home was the safe place, the place where one could count on not being hurt,” bell hooks wrote in Belonging. “It was the place where wounds were attended to.”

I hadn’t been hurt, and neither had my physical house, but Bowling Green had been devastated. Already, Kentuckians were attending to each other’s wounds, but healing would not come quickly.

Among the continuing tornado coverage shared on social media that day, I read for the first time these words by bell hooks, from a chapter called “Kentucky Is My Fate” in Belonging: “Choosing to return to the land and landscape of my childhood, the world of my Kentucky upbringing, I am comforted by the knowledge that I could die here.”

bell hooks had died that morning in Berea, Kentucky.

As a young woman, bell hooks could not wait to get out of Kentucky.

She left for college at Stanford and returned to Kentucky only for visits for years. Those visits confirmed that Kentucky was still a “dysfunctional” place, not somewhere she could find the home she was seeking.   

Until she realized Kentucky was home, despite the remaining challenges, and moved to a small college town called Berea.

“The joyous sense of homecoming that I experience from living in Kentucky does not change the reality that it has been difficult for black rural Kentuckians to find voice, to speak our belonging,” hooks wrote in the introduction to her poetry collection Appalachian Elegy.

“She was troubled by Kentucky, but she also loved it fiercely, like the best Kentuckians do,” said Silas House, Kentucky author and friend of hooks, during a virtual memorial reading in January 2022.

I love Kentucky that same way: protectively, critically, fiercely.

The longest I’ve ever spent away from Kentucky was in the summer of 2019.

Like bell hooks, I have sometimes felt the pull to leave my home state. Most ambitious young Kentuckians have felt that, I think, and it can’t be separated from the outside perception that we can’t thrive in a place viewed by so many as limiting, as disposable.

I doubt I’ll live in Kentucky always – though, like hooks, I feel that Kentucky is my fate, that I will be buried here. And so far, I’ve lived here for all but one month in Ireland one summer and two months in Jacksonville, Florida, the next.

In Jacksonville, I lived with my grandparents while I completed an internship at the local newspaper. They had lived there for nearly 20 years, but Kentucky was everywhere – in the painting of their last Kentucky house that hung in the kitchen, in the blue coffee mug that listed Kentucky facts, in the University of Kentucky shirts we all wore, often running into another UK fan at the beach or at a restaurant. That Jacksonville house always felt like a home, but thinking of Kentucky is not the same as being there.

At the end of the summer, I packed up my car and hit the road home. My sister had flown to Jacksonville to drive back with me, and we each drove six hours as we talked and sang. She was driving, going a little crazy from a long day cooped up, as we reached the last hour of our journey. I watched the miles tick away on I-65 and got my phone ready. As we crossed the line, I took a picture of the sign: “Welcome to Kentucky.”

I breathed a sigh of relief, swore I could feel the change in the air.

I was home.

My homecoming coincided with Alice Allison Dunnigan’s.

That was purposeful – I planned the end of my internship so I got back to Kentucky the day before her life-size bronze sculpture was unveiled in Russellville. I couldn’t miss it.  

Over the past year, who Alice Allison Dunnigan was had become a central part of my love for my state. 

Alice Allison Dunnigan, who lived from 1906 to 1983, was a Kentuckian like me. She was also the first Black woman journalist to gain credentials to both the White House and Capitol press corps, a feat she accomplished in 1947. Before that, she was also a schoolteacher in Kentucky’s segregated school system; after her journalism career, she worked in the Johnson administration.

By the time I learned her name in 2018, she was long dead and mostly forgotten.

It astounds me still that I – with a deep love for Kentucky, for writing, for women’s history – had never heard of someone who embodied so much that I love. Who she was and the sculpture in her honor that brought her to my attention became one of my reporting passion projects. I reported on her life and her descendants, the woman who was sculpting her and the team of Russellville residents who had brought it about. I reported in Lexington, Kentucky, and in Washington, D.C, two of the places the sculpture was displayed in late 2018 and early 2019.

Image by, and used with permission of, Jonathan Palmer

The sculpture and story of Alice Allison Dunnigan went all over, to many places where she made a mark and deserved recognition. But the plan was always for her to come home to Russellville.

When she did, it was front-page news: “ALICE COMES HOME.”

The headline and top of the photo were above the fold of the News-Democrat and Leader on August 6, 2019. That week, the sculpture was unveiled in its permanent location, on the grounds of the SEEK Museum. SEEK stands for Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky, and the museum consists of six historic buildings with exhibits that chronicle Black history in the Russellville area.

Hundreds of people from Russellville and beyond gathered to celebrate Dunnigan and the sculpture in her image. When the opportunity to leave Russellville and Kentucky came to Dunnigan in 1942, she took it; she was weary of facing discrimination and struggling to accomplish her career goals. Though she came back to Russellville for visits – often staying in the Payne-Dunnigan house that belonged to one of her ex-husband’s relatives and now serves as the backdrop for her sculpture – she remained in Washington, D.C., until she died.

With her sculpture’s installation, she had finally come home.

bell hooks wrote this pair of lines in Appalachian Elegy:

“return to familiar ground
hear our lost people speak”

During her life and career, Dunnigan was well known and well honored. A 1947 Pulse magazine piece about her persistence called her “Alice Dunn-(it)-again.” The subhead of an Our World magazine feature about her said, “From Tombstone Washer to White House Reporter is Some Leap (but) Alice Dunnigan Made It By Being Shrewd.” Her name was in both headlines and bylines. After her death, Dunnigan’s voice was lost because it wasn’t valued enough – because she was Black, because she was a woman, because she was a Kentuckian.

But on that familiar ground, where she had almost certainly walked in life, her image was seen and her voice was heard.

Two years later, I sat on the red porch of the Payne-Dunnigan house across from Penny Allison Lockhart, great-niece of Alice Allison Dunnigan. I could see the sculpture of Penny’s great-aunt over her shoulder. We reminisced on that homecoming day and how meaningful the “Alice comes home” narrative was.

Penny had first seen the sculpture at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., but that didn’t compare to the unveiling in Dunnigan’s and Penny’s hometown.

“Bringing Alice home was just amazing,” she said. Whenever friends or family members come to Russellville to visit, Penny and her relatives bring them to the sculpture.

Whenever Penny drives to Russellville from Bowling Green or Nashville, she sometimes chooses to take the long way so she can drive past the sculpture at the SEEK Museum – to say hello to her Aunt Alice on her way home.

Two Augusts later, the sun above Russellville was scorching my shoulders. I had been outside all morning for the Eighth of August Emancipation Celebration, an annual homecoming and festival to celebrate the end of slavery, like a local Juneteenth. Anyone who has called Russellville home returns for a whole weekend of celebration – a parade that included recently crowned royalty, softball and basketball and cornhole tournaments, booths selling everything from homemade BBQ to jewelry.   

I waited beside Alice Allison Dunnigan’s bronze sculpture for my family, none of whom had ever seen it in person. As my parents and three younger siblings approached, I tried to treat it like a grand reveal, but I had no tarp to pull off.

They moved closer to look at the details – the words on the newspaper in her hands, the pearls around her neck – and to feel the warm bronze. “Y’all stand there,” I said, and backed away to take a photo.

I took them inside the Payne-Dunnigan house to see the exhibit, then we ran into my youngest sister’s friend and her mother and grandmother. We told them about Dunnigan and encouraged them to go look at the sculpture. “I just like hearing you talk about her,” the mother said.

We walked around town until we couldn’t stand the heat any longer. Before I got in my mercifully air-conditioned car, I said goodbye to the sculpture, not sure when I would see it next.

Fluffy white clouds popped into the sky as we drove the 30 miles back to Bowling Green. We stopped for our favorite ice cream on the way back home.

*

Bailey Vandiver is a writer, reader, and Kentuckian. She is working on her MFA in creative nonfiction at the Bluegrass Writers Studio. She lives in Lexington with too many unread books, her typewriter collection, and two cats, Leo McGarry and George O’Malley. Find her on Twitter @baivandiver or at baileyvandiver.com.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s