By James Natsis

One might argue that Louisville’s civil rights movement was launched on May 8, 1870, when an African-American woman, Mary Cunningham Smith, and her 6-year-old stepson were ejected from a street car owned by the Louisville City Railway Co. Smith and her husband, Earl, filed a lawsuit the next month and won two years later.

During that same year on the afternoon of Oct. 30, a group of 200-300 black demonstrators gathered after Sunday church services in front of Quinn Chapel on Walnut Street in the heart of the Russell neighborhood. A mere eight months after the ratification of the 15th Amendment granting African-Americans the right to vote, Louisville was claimed to be the only American city where black men could not ride on integrated street cars. The people would now test their rights.

Louisville City Railway Complex, aka Trolley Barn | Photo courtesy of KCAAH

Louisville City Railway Complex, years after trolleys ceased operation | Photo courtesy of KCAAH

The crowd mulled about and gathered courage before three men emerged and made their way toward the street car stop at 10th and Walnut. They boarded a near-empty car, deposited their fares, and sat down. What ensued was the start of a series of events and a long struggle that persists in various forms even today.

Along the same Russell neighborhood corridor that launched the fight for transportation equality stands the former Louisville Street Railway Complex, or “Trolley Barn,” located at 17th Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Erected in 1876, the former mule-drawn and later electric-powered trolley building had long been abandoned. Designated a “brownfield,” it was deemed by definition to be an “abandoned, idled or underutilized industrial and commercial facility where expansion or redevelopment is complicated by real or perceived contamination.”

In 1997, the Louisville Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Department acquired the property as part of its urban renewal program for the Russell neighborhood. It was later determined that extensive soil removal and groundwater remediation requirements suggested by an earlier assessment would not be necessary. This allowed HUD to proceed with the cleanup, and in 1999, the city received federal transportation funds to renovate the building to make way for a phoenix to rise in its place. It is called the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage (KCAAH).

“The story of Mary Cunningham Smith is our cornerstone,” stated KCAAH Executive Director Aukram Burton during Insider Louisville’s recent visit to the center.

Kentucky African American Heritage Center | Photo by James Natsis

Kentucky African American Heritage Center | Photo by James Natsis

The path has been anything but easy since its official opening in 2009. Although the conception began in 1999, the center met a number of obstacles, including complete stoppage in 2005 following a financial audit that found a potential mishandling of funds. (An independent audit later determined that was not the case.) The seemingly endless delays put a damper on the permanent exhibit that was designed to occupy the majority of the massive interior space. Original plans called for a rendition of an African village, a plantation, and other such displays, Burton said, but those have not come to fruition.

The fact that the Muhammad Ali Center was being developed around the same time proved problematic, as some observers believed Louisville was not big enough to support two similarly focused centers.

And although KCAAH’s mission has evolved to focus more on education and events, Burton contends, “we saw it as a blessing that we weren’t able to do the permanent exhibition.”

“Louisville is not New York or L.A. with large tourist and transient communities that flow in and out,” he explained. He pointed to the Frazier Museum and the Ali Center and some of the challenges they face with large, permanent exhibits. “They need greater foot traffic to sustain their permanent exhibits,” he said.

So the KCAAH Board decided to redirect the center’s efforts toward events. “Our biggest asset was space,” he continued. “And we took advantage of it. About one-third of our income comes from hosting events, and we would not be here now without this.”

Large event space insider KCAAH

Large event space insider KCAAH | Photo by James Natsis

An important step in the center’s development was the creation in 2011 of Senate Bill 64 signed by former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear. The bill created the KCAAH as a quasi-state agency, placing it under the purview of the Kentucky Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet. Henceforth, KCAAH has had a seat at the table with other state entities such as Kentucky Educational Television (KET), the Kentucky Arts Council, Kentucky Tourism, and the Kentucky Film Office. This designation also required that KCAAH create a second board comprised of statewide representatives in addition to the original institutional board.

The synergy created by this network has led to the development of a Kentucky African-American Heritage Trail. This collaborative project links the efforts of six other centers from around the state promoting African-American culture and history. In this capacity, Burton and others plan to attend the September 2016 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“We hope to be an affiliate,” Burton said. “This will give us national credibility that we need.”

Meanwhile, much is happening on the local level. KCAAH now houses the Samuel Plato Academy of Historic Preservation Trades. The school, which opened in September 2015, teaches a trade while promoting preservation. The program partners with Jefferson Community and Technical College, which recently produced its first cohort that trained for three semesters in the craft of historic preservation.

In addition, exhibit space is being constructed, a black box theater is in the planning stages, and a genealogical research room has been designated. 

“KCAAH is excited about playing a prominent role in a new Arts and Culture District to be created along Muhammad Ali Boulevard,” Burton said. (And if you catch wind of a premier Louisville jazz site in the making at 17th and Muhammad Ali, just remember that you read it here first.)

A recent report called KCAAH “a key neighborhood asset” that “should become a focal point for events and activity.”

Based on our recent visit, it’s obvious that’s already happening.