When asked to give a Black History Month talk on the impact of Black culture in her life, Scott County’s Ukari Figgs didn’t have to mine her many contacts in the basketball world or even hop online and dig up notes on historical figures who may have inspired her journey.
Figgs, 45, who has the rare distinction of being a champion at the high school, college and professional levels, simply had to drive across town.
Five or so miles from her workplace as group manager at Toyota Motor Manufacturing of Kentucky, where she was the first African American female executive, sits the 23-acre hamlet of New Zion, straddling the Scott and Fayette county line.
Founded in 1872 by former slaves Calvin Hamilton and Primus Keene, it’s the place where every subsequent generation of Figgs’ family was born and raised.
All she had to do in preparation for Thursday’s presentation at Ensor Learning Resource Center on the campus of Georgetown College was get out of her car, look around and let the stories of her youth come flooding back.
“For me growing up, I didn’t have the internet, so I’ll age myself right there, but I didn’t have to look far for heroes or people to look up to,” Figgs said. “I was able to achieve a lot from a basketball standpoint and in engineering, but without my community and the people there in New Zion that had the forethought to start that community, I don’t think I would be up here today.”
New Zion was one of about 40 Black hamlets that sprang up around central Kentucky in the years immediately following the Civil War and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Figgs’ village, initially named Briar Hill, was formed on Nov. 23, 1872.
“Former slave owners gave or sold or leased land in plots to the freed slaves, and they were able to get this land to have a vehicle for growth,” Figgs said.
In addition to the influence of her grandfather, Winston, who was a farmer, and father, Gregory, a local school teacher and administrator, Figgs said she was the beneficiary of fictive kinship.
It is a term for people who were not blood relatives, but whose proximity fostered their loyalty to Figgs as she advanced through basketball and in life. She specifically noted a couple known to her as Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Bill.
“They loved on us like we were their own kids. They were really instrumental in my life,” Figgs said. “Some of these people are gone, and it really means a lot to me to be able to speak about what they did to help me along my path. People there helped each other. They respected each other.”
Figgs said spending time with her grandfather working on various tasks around the farm and watching him fix equipment spurred her interest in engineering.
Even though she was a prodigy in basketball, playing toe-to-toe with boys until she reached middle school, the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) didn’t yet exist as a target for her dreams.
“I grew up playing on a dirt basketball court shooting against a basket that was on a tree. I was dribbling on rocks or a tree root,” she said. “There wasn’t a professional basketball league for me to aspire to, so I aspired to be an engineer. I wanted to be an astronaut until I took my first flight, and then I realized I wasn’t gonna make it out of the atmosphere, so I’d better do something else.”
Figgs led Scott County to the KHSAA state championship in 1995, then was tournament MVP on a Purdue University team that won the 1999 NCAA title.
She was so focused on the classroom that she took an engineering exam while at the Final Four. Figgs was also getting out of a class the day she found out she’d been drafted by the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks.
“I think there were more people in my apartment complex in L.A. than there are in the whole city of Georgetown, so it was overwhelming,” Figgs said.
Three seasons with the Sparks brought Figgs the pro championship to complete her personal triple crown.
She also played one season each with the Portland Fire and Houston Comets.
“When I look at the impact of New Zion on my life, I was not afraid of any challenge, because I’ve looked at the people of New Zion and seen what they’ve done and it never really fazed me,” she said. “Every one of those championships was the first for that team. Nobody had done it. So when you all are here in school thinking nobody before me has done it, so what? Be the first person to do it. Be the person to make that difference.”
After a brief foray into coaching that included stints with her high school and college alma maters as well as the University of Kentucky, Figgs followed her initial engineering career path.
“People say, ‘You’ve done so much, and you’re pretty humble.’ Why wouldn’t I be? I didn’t do all that on my own. I’ve got a whole lot of people in this room who helped me along that path,” Figgs said. “To me it’s about the sacrifices that were made before me and how I can be a person to help somebody else see that they can accomplish something.”
Figgs implored her multi-racial audience to follow the lead of her 150-year-old neighborhood and pick up others when you can, whether they are family or simply strangers in need.
“Don’t miss your opportunity to be part of someone else’s life,” Figgs said. “All of us have an opportunity to do something for somebody else whether they look like you or not. You never know what that impact will be.”
As Black History Month winds down, Figgs also recommended a two-pronged approach to carrying it through the rest of the year.
It is the same advice she shares with her son, Kasen, who had a note from his mom to miss school and attend the educational event.
“One, whatever your ethnicity, educate yourself on Black history,” Figgs said. “Learn about the Black history that is not right in front of your face. We hear about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, but I bet most of you didn’t know about New Zion, and it’s five miles away.”
Also, she added, be an ally and a good teammate.
“Help promote equality for everybody,” Figgs said. “We as people have to work together or we won’t make it. There’s not one race, one gender, one sexual orientation that can solve it by themselves. We’ve got to do it together. We’re all stronger together.”