Louisville’s “Polite Racism” and its expression through Oral History

In Catherine Fosl and Tracy E. K’Meyer’s Freedom on the Border: An Oral History of the Civil Rights Movement in Kentucky, the authors present a collection of voices that attempt to portray the wide variety of experiences of black life and activism in the mid-twentieth century. Special attention is paid to the urban/rural divide across the state, an issue that still resonates in Kentucky’s social and political milieu in 2015. Moreover, the product of cultural and economic geographies, the urban Bluegrass region provides an interesting case study of this diversity. Historically the base of Kentucky’s largest black populations, rural dislocations in the early twentieth century furthered ballooned Louisville’s African American presence. This process of change shaped particular race relations close to the falls of the Ohio River, and the binary thinking separating urban and rural spheres proves valid in assessing Kentucky’s patchwork of intolerance. Interracial relations were influenced by an intersection of Midwestern, Ohio Valley moderation and Deep South, plantation-style bigotry, producing what Fosl and K’Meyer call, using a term coined by Louisville historian George C. Wright, ‘polite racism.’

The urban geography of Louisville reflected this dichotomy. The vibrant and close-knit community of Walnut Street, later renamed Muhammad Ali, was a prosperous center of attraction for blacks. The combination of transit networks and real estate interests created what Lyman Johnson called an “unwritten rule,” shackling black businesses (read: communities) beyond a safety threshold. Johnson said that  there was a “definite understanding that Negro businesses didn’t go beyond 6th Street.” The everyday cityscape for African Americans featured imposing landmarks and experiences that were ruled by codes and practices explicitly barring blacks. The old amusement park and Olmsted park system are two of the most glaring examples of bigoted eyesores dotting the urban grid.  The ‘polite’ part of the character of Louisville’s racial harmony was constituted by honest and token experiences of inclusion that also come through in the narratives; however, the deep humiliation of separate spheres — permeating aspects of life such as food, education, and even prostitution — remains dominant in the oral histories of black activists.

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