Perkins

Three generations of Perkins family members stand underneath the new mural celebrating the iconic stature John L. Perkins — also known as “Johnny B.” — has held in this community. Pictured are Perkins (right) with his mother Jacqueline (center) and his grandson Cameron (left). The mural by Damon Thompson is on the backside of the Virginia Cinema building.

For John L. Perkins, the best part of the mural bearing his image is not where it's located, but rather what would be the view for his visage.

"Probably the most significant thing about where it's located is that it's facing the postal office," said Perkins. "It's facing the entrance and exit where the carriers come and go, so I can watch them daily."

As former postmaster here in Somerset — someone who worked for the U.S. Postal Service for 34 years — Perkins has earned that status as sort of a "guardian angel" for the men and women who handle our mail. His place as a pillar of the community locally has also earned the privilege of being honored in mural form, and his image can be seen on the back of the Virginia Cinema building, looking out over North Maple Street.

"I'm really, really humbled by it," said Perkins, who retired as postmaster in April of 2004. "I knew that the city was contemplating a group of murals, and to be honest, I didn't know that I was included in the group until a day or two before it happened.

"When you're busy raising a family and working and this, that, and the other, you kind of just put your head down and do the best that you can do," he added. "The goal is to do the best you can for your family, and represent yourself and your family in a respectful manner. (I appreciate) that someone thought I was doing it the right way, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be on someone's wall."

Perkins is one of the most famous names among Pulaski Countians living today. For some people, that's because of his time in the post office, serving in the top spot for a decade. As an African-American, Perkins was one of very few such individuals in this part of the country to hold such a position when he was offered it around the beginning of the 1990s -- out of about 900 post offices in the state, there were only "10 or 11" who were persons of color, he said.

Others may know him with their stomach. Perkins brought a unique brand of BBQ to the table that local folks can taste in their mouths just by mentioning the name — and the name "Johnny B's" graces a brand of BBQ sauces and rubs that's sold from here to the Great Lakes. (Even though his name is John Livingston Perkins, "My daddy was Johnny B. Perkins and everybody calls me 'Johnny B' because they thought I was Johnny B. Junior,” he told the Commonwealth Journal. His son, who largely handles in the BBQ sauce business, goes by John B. Perkins as well.)

Or maybe you know him from the football field, where the Somerset Briar Jumper starred for coach Jim Williams and coach Jerry Jones from 1964 to 1967, or any number of the community boards and organizations for which he's served. 

The point is, Perkins has a name — and a face — that's as iconic as any in this area. As such, when the idea for a "#seemyset" series including written photos and video essays on the City of Somerset's tourism website (seesomerset.com) was born last year, Perkins was first on the list of local figures to honor, for Tourism Director Leslie Ikerd.

“Johnny B. is the epitome of the Somerset person we want to highlight,” said Ikerd. “He’s always positive, he always has a smile on his face, always welcoming. He is what I call a tourism ambassador. His story shows what Somerset is to our guests. He always continued to move forward — never bitter, always better. Those are the people we want to lift up and tell their story.”

That said, Perkins called it "bittersweet" that the mural is on the wall of what used to be the Virginia Cinema movie theater — and may be once again, if restoration efforts are ever fully realized. Perkins has been involved in those efforts over the years and for him, the inclusion of the balcony was a deeply painful issues, considering what it meant for him as an African-American youth back in the '50s and '60s.

"When I was growing up, we had to sit in the balcony; if we had to relieve ourselves, we had to go out in the alley," said Perkins. "I was maybe 16 or 17 years old before we could go downstairs and sit. At the Virginia, you could go in and buy candy and popcorn and stuff, but then have to go out to the fire escape to go upstairs. ... The employees were very nice folks. It was just the sign of the times; that's the way it was, and you didn't really have anyone to rally against it because of the size of the community and the percentage of Blacks in the community."

Perkins added that a lot of friends, such as those with whom he played ball, "didn't even know that the schools were segregated; they didn't see any Black kids (at school) but they just thought we were going (somewhere else). A lot of things were happening that a lot of people weren't aware of, especially the kids."

The artwork is by Damon Thompson, a notable artist from Louisville who had become known in Somerset through the Somerset-Louisville arts exchange program initiated by Somerset Mayor Alan Keck and Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer. 

“Part of our culture is bringing in different types of people, showing a different perspective as part of a visitor-based tourism approach,” said Ikerd. “We are still all Kentucky people; we have that common thread amongst us. But this allows us to help build ambassadors for Somerset in other communities and support local artists by giving them opportunities for growth.”

According to a release from the City of Somerset, two other locations fell through before the opportunity to place the mural at the Virginia presented itself, only a day before Thompson was set to arrive.  Ikerd asked permission to paint on the back of the building from owners the Downtown Somerset Development Corporation board, and the request was approved.

"The symbolism between our work to rebuild the Virginia into a place that's more inclusive for all and Johnny B.'s enduring love for all people and our community was too strong to ignore," said Keck. "I cherish our friendship and look to him often for guidance and wisdom. I'm proud of how the mural turned out and thrileed to honor him in a way he deserves."

For Perkins, the mural "reinforces what this community is all about" — the values of the people who live here and make it what it is.

"(It's about) whether you're a good steward of the community, and doesn't have anything to do with race," he said. "... To be on any wall at all is very humbling."

Recommended for you