They Were Here

John Hays is helping an arts org bring attention to the often-unseen history of slavery

Published in 2024 Kentucky Super Lawyers magazine

By Beth Taylor on December 28, 2023

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In 2016, John Hays took on the task of handling legal work for a public art history project designed to illustrate an often unseen chapter in American history. It started with a conversation with client Marjorie Guyon, artist and founder of the I Was Here project. “One day, Marjorie stopped me on the street to tell me about her concept for the project,” recalls the construction litigator at Jackson Kelly. “I told her I loved it and would help any way I could.”

The result was a series of portraits of contemporary Black Americans, transformed into representative images of their African ancestors. The portraits are reproduced on translucent fabric in locations ranging from shop windows to bars around the Old Fayette County Courthouse, site of a large auction of enslaved Africans. As a permanent memorial, portraits are installed in the windows of the courthouse.

Hays and other Jackson Kelly attorneys are not only still handling the project’s legal work pro bono—from contract negotiations to intellectual property issues—but Hays is also on the organization’s board. “I majored in American history at Princeton and know well that our history students are not taught the full history of slavery in America,” he says. “Too much has been lost about the people who were enslaved.”

The original pieces were exhibited at Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington and the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville. Large reproductions can be seen in downtown Lexington and Winchester, Kentucky; Loretto Motherhouse in Nerinx, Kentucky; The Octagon museum in Washington, D.C., and the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum in New York City. I Was Here won a CODA award for collaboration in design and art in 2020. Information about the project can be found at i-was-here.org.

“John Hays has been critically important to the development of the project,” Guyon says. “We have relied on his guidance, acumen and advocacy as the project has grown.”

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