Owensboro celebrates powerful history ‘Through Sleet’s Eyes’

By: - February 20, 2023 5:50 am

Along the Ohio River in Moneta Sleet’s hometown of Owensboro, K.O. Lewis’s portrait of the photographer is displayed. As background, Lewis painted images from Sleet’s photojournalism; the woman on the right was marching in the rain from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. (Photo by Drew Hardesty, Wonder Boy Media)

Moneta Sleet Jr.’s eye led him from his hometown of Owensboro around the world.

As a photojournalist for Ebony magazine, Sleet captured on film some of the 20th century’s most iconic moments; his work earned a Pulitzer Prize in journalism, the first awarded a Black American.

This week, the Ohio River town where nine-year-old Sleet first picked up a camera will celebrate his life and legacy with a festival called “Through Sleet’s Eyes.” 

Each event will be held free of charge at the RiverPark Center.

Born in 1926, Sleet is best known for his coverage of the Civil Rights Movement. He photographed the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march, all while subject to racism and discrimination himself.

Sleet’s most recognized work, a photo of Coretta Scott King and her daughter, Bernice, grieving at the funeral of their husband and father, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., earned the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1969.

The original caption on the photograph that won a Pulitzer Prize read: Mrs. Martin Luther King, Jr., comforts her youngest daughter Bernice, 5, during services in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, 9th April 1968. (Photo by Moneta Sleet Jr./UPI/Bettmann) The image is now part of Getty Images’ Bettman Collection.

A graduate of the-then Kentucky State College in Frankfort, Sleet built an extensive portfolio during his 41-year career at Ebony. He recorded the joys, pains, dreams and artistry of Africa and Black America.

Sleet, who was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame in 1989, died in 1996.

Emmy Woosley on the Kentucky State University campus. (Photo for Kentucky Lantern by Jamie Lucke)

“Moneta Sleet’s story is American history, and it’s American history that starts in Owensboro,” said Emmy Woosley, the festival chair and an MBA student at Vanderbilt University. 

Woosley initially pitched a public art piece for Sleet in 2021 to her Leadership Owensboro class. What began as a plan for a bronze sculpture in his honor quickly evolved into a community effort, Woosley said. 

The festival was born shortly after a portrait of Sleet, created by local artist and educator K.O. Lewis, was unveiled and circulated in Daviess County.

Friday, Feb. 24

“Through Sleet’s Eyes Festival” will open to the public at 6 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 24, beginning with a gallery of Sweet’s photographs entitled “A Witness to History.” The exhibit invites viewers to “witness the miracle of Moneta” by exploring images that curator Bob Morris calls “some of the most important of the 20th century.” A jazz performance by the Owensboro Symphony Orchestra will supplement the program.

At 6:30 p.m., Ozier Muhammad, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and friend of Sleet, will give a firsthand account of Sleet’s career and personal life. 

Muhammad “was just so excited to come and be part of this event because I think he truly recognizes how great Sleet’s legacy is not just on photojournalism, but on American history,” Woosley said.

Saturday, Feb. 25

On Saturday, the festival will start at 3 p.m. with a guided experience of the photo exhibit, followed by community conversations with the festival’s creators and a musical performance by the Owensboro Men’s Mass Community Choir at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., respectively.

The festival’s main programming begins at 7 p.m. with a screening of the documentary “A Fine Remembrance” and a performance of a one-man-play called “The Power of the Lens.”

“A Fine Remembrance,” produced by Woosley and Drew Hardesty of Wonder Boy Media, explores Sleet’s impact through a series of interviews with people who were his colleagues and also a visit to his alma mater Kentucky State University.

Jeremy Gillett (University of Kentucky Fine Arts photo)

Woosley and Hardesty started by visiting Sleet’s son, Greg, a retired U.S. district judge in Delaware, and traveled across the country, interviewing those who keep his legacy alive.

“When we talk to his colleagues, they just light up talking about Sleet, his stories and how much he pushed them to be better,” Woosley said. It’s that energy, she hopes, that will empower Owensboro’s youth to realize their potential.

“The Power of the Lens,” written and performed by Jeremy Gillett, is a three-movement play that takes a contemporary look at Sleet’s life. It follows Walter, a teacher at an art camp, through a story that explains the overlap between Black history and Sleet’s photography.

Gillett, an actor, writer and teacher with an expansive portfolio in theater and television, said he was drawn to Sleet’s story for its prominence in the Black community and its message to youth who may struggle with identity.

“His work was like a silent film. Each picture had a point, each picture had stood for something; there was a mission, a purpose,” Gillett said. “I want to bring visibility to the long lineage of paradigm-shifting inventions and creations that have come out of the Black community.” 

For more information on the “Through Sleet’s Eyes Festival” and to see more of his photographs, visit tsefest.org.

BBC News wrote about Sleet and published many of his photographs on the 50th anniversary of his Pulitzer Prize in “Moneta Sleet: The great black photographer you’ve never heard of.”

A view from Moneta Sleet Jr. Park in Owensboro on Feb. 10. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Arden Barnes)

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Mariah P. Kendell
Mariah P. Kendell

Mariah Kendell is a Kentuckian Lantern reporter intern and a senior journalism and political science student at the University of Kentucky. Kendell’s love for journalism sprouted from an early interest in federal and state politics. She has interned in the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the University of Kentucky College of Communication and Information. She is a native of Elizabethtown.