Louisville is, of course, a racially divided city. We are not as divided as some cities, but neither are we the Louisville we too often imagine we are. Certainly there are many positives we can point to in Louisville when it comes to race, but we are kidding ourselves if we think 9th Street is just a street, or if we think that a black teenager and a white teenager view through the same lens a police car driving down their Louisville street. What can we do about this?
One thing we can do is to know and to be honest about our history. I’ve lived going on 17 years in Louisville, but since I didn’t go to high school here, even if I live to be 90 and die in Jefferson County, most likely I’ll still die as an outsider. But my outsider status gives me some perspective. For example, when you move to Louisville as a white person, you learn that white Louisvillians perceive our city as historically progressive on race. You are informed that Kentucky did not secede from the Union, and that Louisville especially remained supportive of the Union. You are told that Louisville led the way in the South when it came to integrating schools, and that this happened with little violence or unrest. You are told about progressives such as Henry Watterson and Louis Brandeis. You see that Pee Wee Reese rightfully has a prominent place on Main Street with his arm around Jackie Robinson. You learn that Muhammad Ali and Louisville have made their peace--which of course means you simultaneously learn they were once at odds.
But there’s more to the story than that, and I’ve been reading about it in two books: Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865--1940: Lynchings, Mob Rule, and “Legal Lynchings,” by George Wright; and Civil Rights in the Gateway to the South: Louisville, Kentucky, 1945-1980, by Tracey K’Meyer. Wright counts 353 lynchings in Kentucky. Roughly 80% of the victims were black; this in a state with a pretty small percentage of African Americans. This is part of our state’s history--not a pretty part, but an important part.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, and after the end of the Civil War, Kentucky sympathies bent in the direction of the Confederacy. During these early years after the war, Henry Watterson, the editor of the Courier-Journal, defended Kentuckians when other Americans criticized the practice of lynchings. The intimidation tactics of Klansmen and others cowed people who opposed lynchings into silence. As a result, most of the state stood by as white and black men who had fought for the Union were lynched after they returned to their native Kentucky. For decades thereafter, well into the 20th century, justice in Kentucky was blind, and deaf and dumb, when it came to prosecuting people who lynched men who never received a proper trial.
Only one lynching, however, took place in Louisville (in 1866). Three things account for why only one in 353 lynchings happened in Kentucky’s most populated city: 1. Judge Bland Ballard, of the U.S. District Court in Louisville, insisted on allowing testimony from blacks in his court in the late 1860’s and 1870’s. No other court in the state allowed blacks to testify during this period. He also began throwing people in jail from around the state for whipping blacks, a practice Kentuckians commonly deemed legal--or at least not worthy of prosecution. 2. The Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency established to protect freed slaves after the war, was especially forceful in Louisville. 3. Henry Watterson, the former Confederate, had a change of heart and began speaking out boldly against lynchings, thus shaping public opinion.
The uneven story of racial progress and racial prejudice continued in Kentucky and Louisville through the 20th Century. For example, Kentucky hospitals were forced to treat blacks for the first time in 1950. The change came after the outrage over the death of Leroy Foley following an auto accident in Breckenridge County. For three hours he lay bleeding on a concrete floor in the hospital, the blood not even having been cleaned from his face or hands. A black ambulance service was called from Louisville to transport him to a black hospital there. He bled to death shortly after the ambulance arrived.
The last of the Jim Crow laws in Louisville were repealed in 1965. The Courier-Journal and the New York Times portrayed this as a proactive step taken by Louisville’s white leaders in order to assure a smooth transition into the future. The Louisville Defender, then as now Louisville’s African American newspaper, told a different and more accurate story: that leaders had finally been forced into the action by lawsuits and by student marchers, hundreds of whom had been arrested.
The 1970's were a tumultuous time in Louisville when busing began. Protests required the presence of the National Guard to calm the community.
Why this long winded retelling of a small part of Louisville’s uneven history on issues of race? I believe being honest about our present begins with being honest about our past. If white and African American Louisvillians, along with the growing percentage of mixed race Louisvillians, are going to work together to forge a better common future, being honest about where we’ve been and where we are is a prerequisite for candid conversations about where we are going.
We white folks (our church is overwhelmingly white) have a bad habit of sugar coating history and looking at the present through rose colored glasses. God’s kingdom is better served when we are honest about both the good and bad in our stories. Friendships can’t be built on half-truths. May God’s truth and God’s justice grow in our city. We need it.