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Black History Month

Oldham County activities feature
local re-enactor Booker

Helen E. McKinney
Contributing Writer

LA GRANGE, Ky. (February 2005) – Many re-enactors and Chautauqua performers spend years perfecting their knowledge of a certain historical figure so they can accurately portray this person before an audience. But for La Grange, Ky., local Diane Booker, this was an easy task.

Diane Booker

Photo provided

Diane Booker shares
what life was like for
her cousin, Cora Harris,
during the 1940s,
1950s and 1960s.

Booker has recently begun portraying someone she knows well: her cousin Cora Harris. Booker’s persona describes a major portion of Harris’ life as an African American in Oldham County during the 40s and 60s. She will give children a glimpse into Harris’ life from 10 a.m. until noon Feb. 5 at the Oldham County History Center.
Born in 1901, Harris was one of the first African Americans to get a diploma from the La Grange Training School, said Booker. Harris was one of two children, and her brother, John, was allowed to attend Lincoln Institute while Harris was not because she was a woman. But Harris’ father was insistent that both of his children get an education.
Harris was the first African American to pass the entrance exam to Central High. On weekdays, she boarded a train bound for Louisville at 6 a.m. and arrived home again by 8 to do the evening chores. She eventually had to leave school to take care of her ailing mother.
Harris then began working for Mammoth Life Insurance Agency, a successful African American business began by two Louisville businessmen. She traveled the countryside in her Model T, collecting insurance premiums. This was really something for a woman to do at this time in history, said Booker, 62.
Harris resided in a house at 206 Madison St. in La Grange with her husband. Even though they had no children, Harris was always a caregiver. She cared for a niece who was blind and often cooked for different people in need in the community. “She was a very loving, caring person,” Booker said.
Mary Bullitt, Harris’ grandmother, was a slave to the Duncan family who owned the house a block east of the Oldham County History Center. After the Civil War, the Duncan’s deeded a house to Bullitt.
Harris’s grandfather, Washington Bullitt was a free man. He was a friend of abolitionist and educator Elijah Marrs, said Nancy Theiss, executive director of the History Center. Marrs and Bullitt were instrumental in beginning a Freedman’s School in La Grange. There were only 19 of these federally funded schools in Kentucky. Bullitt also helped found the Kynett Church shortly after the Civil War.
The house in which Harris lived was full of history. The Clore family of Oldham County gave it to her grandfather. Washington gave it to Harris’ father, who in turn, passed it on to her. Her brother moved on to Michigan, where he lived and raised his family.
By portraying a person so close to her, Booker didn’t have to put in as much research time as some re-enactors do, having grown up her entire life knowing Harris. One of Harris’ nieces loaned papers to Booker, documenting the house she lived in and other things in Harris’ life, so Booker could include these facts into her persona.
What Booker did have to spend time researching was the time period in Oldham County history when Harris lived. She interviewed many older people in the community
and said her only regret was that she “didn’t do this earlier.” She learned volumes about the county and its elderly people, who shared many memories that coincided with Harris’ life.
“I really like doing it,” said Booker of her portrayal of Harris. Booker, a life-long resident of Oldham County, said it was Theiss who approached her with the idea of portraying Harris. Since last year’s “Juneteenth” celebration, Theiss had been searching for something like this, said Booker.
Theiss said Booker became involved with the History Center through the African American Heritage Committee, formed last year. Harris had been a part-time receptionist for Theiss’s father’s veterinary business, in addition to doing some domestic work at Theiss’s house. Harris “was also a very close family friend of my family’s. I knew Cora all my life,” said Theiss.
Booker hopes to some day take her portrayal into local schools and continue working through the History Center to provide insight into Harris’ life during the 20th century in Oldham County.
Theiss said Harris was a community leader, respected for her leadership and service in her church. She was always the center of activities for fund raising. Harris was an important figure in the community because “like so many African Americans during he time, she worked in her community to improve the educational opportunities in a committed way without recognition or support.”
Booker said she hopes children will learn how difficult and different it was for an African American person growing up in the previous century. She also wants students to learn “why humans treated African Americans the way they did,” she said. “It hasn’t always been easy. We are a people of strong possibilities and deep faith.”
She mainly wants audiences to “see us as a person.” Booker’s performance is part of a series of Finding My Sense of Place Children’s Workshops, offered on Saturdays at the History Center. The workshops expose children to the unique cultural and natural history events making Oldham County a special place.

• For more information, contact the History Center at (502) 222-0826.

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