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African American Culture in Louisville

Louisville, KY is a unique and multifaceted destination where African American history runs deep.

Because Kentucky was a slave state and neighboring Indiana was free, Louisville was at the forefront of African American activity both before and during the Civil War as slaves traversed through the area via the Underground Railroad.

By 1900 the city was one of six boasting the largest African American population, thereby making it an integral part of the urbanization of a culture that until that time, had been largely rural.

After the end of slavery in 1865, a mass migration of primarily freed blacks to Louisville resulted in the development of numerous African American communities: Petersburg/Newburg, one of the county’s earliest; Smoketown; Berrytown; Griffytown (originally spelled Griffeytown); and Harrods Creek.

Today, these and other historic districts remain predominantly African American, and still home to many important historic and cultural sites.

Both visitors and residents alike enjoy the myriad of historic and cultural sites of African American interest scattered throughout the Greater Louisville area, some of which commemorate the lives of famous Black Louisvillians like Jazz greats Helen Hume and Lionel Hampton, Kentucky’s first female African American Senator Georgia Powers, Civil Rights leader Whitney M. Young, Jr., and of course boxing legend Muhammed Ali, among others.

Also in Louisville is the studio of contemporary sculptor Ed Hamilton, known nationwide for his provocative tribute to Black Civil War soldiers, monument to Booker T. Washington, likeness of boxer Joe Louis, and the Amistad Memorial, among other projects.

Just 30 minutes outside of the city in Simpsonville you’ll find the birthplace of Civil Rights activist Whitney M. Young, Jr. A shrine in his honor can be found on the campus of the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Job Corps Center here.

In downtown Louisville on the front windows of popular Sway Restaurant at the Hyatt Regency Louisville serving delicious innovative southern fare, you’ll find the Tom Bullock Mural. The mural honors its namesake, the first African American to publish a cocktail book when he did so in 1917.

The mural is significant in several ways: It honors Bullock’s skills as a bartender and his claim to have invented Louisville’s official cocktail, the Old Fashioned; its location is situated along the Louisville Urban Bourbon Trail; and the muralist, Kacy Jackson, is an important personality in the city in his own right, known for his introspective murals of influential people and places dotted around the city.

Named for Harvey Clarence Russell, a distinguished Black educator who lived in Louisville in the 1920’s (the Russell Neighborhood is named for him as well), is the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage.

The spectacular Center sits on the site of an historic trolley barn complex where from the 1920s to the 1950s, although it was a racially diverse area, it was central to African American life where scores of Black-owned businesses—from doctor’s offices, to hotels, retail stores, barber and beauty shops, churches, musical venues and theatres, restaurants, grocery stores, and other entities—thrived. The location is also significant, as it was the first neighborhood in Louisville in which large numbers of African Americans bought homes.

For many decades the city’s mule-drawn streetcars, and later also its buses, played a pivotal role in early demonstrations against racial discrimination. As a result, this cluster of buildings where the center now sits was an essential part of the development of Louisville’s public transportation.

The center’s goal is to act “as a source of revitalization and education for the Kentucky African American community and beyond,” and “to raise public awareness about the history, heritage, and cultural contributions of African Americans in Kentucky and in the African Diaspora.”

The Center’s 63,000 square foot campus, one of the largest African American cultural centers in the country, is not a museum, a very important distinction the leadership would like to make, as it is much more than a repository of artifacts and memorabilia.

Recently renovated, it features numerous thematic alleyways such as Africa, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights Movement, in addition to possessing a genealogy research component. It also features special art installations and interactive exhibits, and hosts a wide array of spoken word, visual and performing arts performances throughout the year.

A neighborhood event venue, it is rented by many major local companies for private events, conferences and meetings, bar and bat mitzvahs celebrations, weddings, and the like, and has also hosted dignitaries such as former First Lady Michelle Obama and Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, just to name a few.

Future plans include incorporating visible and tangible connections to the Afro-Cuban, Bolivian, and other people of color communities, many of which also have ties to Louisville and Kentucky.

Another fascinating and unique Louisville attraction is Farmington Historic Plantation. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Plantation provides an up-close-and-personal perspective of a well-to-do, 19th century home and farm.

The owners were John and Lucy Speed (the Speed Art Museum is named after them) who profited greatly from the labor provided by the estimated to be well over 60 slaves who lived and worked on the property.

At the visitor center, you start off your exploration of the property by experiencing a historical background of the story and property here, not by watching a film, rather while sitting in the midst of a sort of theater in the round where the recreated voices of the people from back in the day share their tales against timed, illuminated and sound enhanced historical backdrops detailed on the exhibit walls. This includes President Abraham Lincoln who was a friend of the Speeds yet struggled between his anti-slavery beliefs and their owning of slaves here.

This 550-acre former thriving hemp production property believed by some to have been designed by Thomas Jefferson, encompasses a 14-room Federal-style home, an elaborate early 19th Century garden, a stone springhouse and barn, cook’s quarters and kitchen, a blacksmith shop, apple orchard, remodeled carriage house and museum store. Activities include walking the expansive grounds, tours, festivals, and other special events.

There’s so much to see, do, and enjoy in Louisville that we’ve barely scratched the surface! Keep reading about these other exciting aspects of Bourbon City.

* Fall in Love with Louisville

* Beyond Bourbon and Bluegrass in Louisville

* The Seelbach Hilton Louisville


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