- “Straining To Hear Their Thoughts and Desires”:Researching and Writing the African American Experience in Kentucky
In 1930, Lyman T. Johnson, a black civil rights activist and educator, moved to Louisville. In an oral history memoir, Johnson recalled conversations with others about living in Kentucky. “‘Friends used to ask me, Lyman, how can you stand to live in Kentucky?’ I would say: ‘Because I break Kentucky into two parts, Louisville and the rest of the state. Louisville is oriented to the North, culturally and commercially. The rest of Kentucky looks to the South.’”1 By contrast, Mae Street Kidd, who grew up in rural Millersburg in Bourbon County, recalled that “Blacks and whites lived close together, and to my knowledge there were never any racial incidents. Everybody was friendly.”2 Howard Bailey, from Middlesboro, recalled, “We had a very unique situation as a little coal-mining town in the mountains because the kids knew one another. I lived in the middle of a block in my neighborhood and directly across the street and two doors down from me were white families. You could go another block where [End Page 509] my grandmother and aunt lived and they both had white families that lived on either side of them.” Growing up in Paducah, Glad-man Humbles remembered that “segregation was not as rigid as in the Deep South, but it existed.” Yet it was a different experience for Mary Northington in the northernmost region of the state. “Here in Covington, there was nothing for black people but the home, the church, and the school. There were movies [but] you could not go to the movies. There was a Y[MCA, but] you couldn’t go to the Y. We had to walk to Cincinnati for any activities of that nature.”3
Each of these experiences reflected the blurred lines of racial segregation in Kentucky during the twentieth century. They also present opportunities to study how African Americans negotiated their lives in these kinds of environments, overcame racism, and created communities of which they could be proud. Most importantly, they reveal that the black experience in the Bluegrass State was much more complex than the portrait we currently have. Generally speaking, African Americans in Kentucky experienced similar forms of racism and discrimination as those living farther south. Yet, within this context, Kentucky African Americans had varied experiences that were determined by time, place, and circumstances.
Historian George C. Wright’s groundbreaking studies of African American history in the Bluegrass State have revealed a different experience for African Americans in the state’s two largest cities, Louisville and Lexington, as compared to other, more rural areas of Kentucky. In so doing, his works laid out an early paradigm for studying African American history in the Bluegrass State. In his study of African American life in Louisville between 1865 and 1930, Wright coined the term “polite racism” to describe the relationship between blacks and whites. Unlike in other southern cities, blacks in Louisville could vote, and they did not experience the level of virulent racism common in southern cities. Yet upper-class whites “demanded that blacks be passive and remain in the place assigned them in Louisville society.” [End Page 510] Whites controlled the racial climate by offering selective support for black interests, which helped perpetuate an image of progressive race relations. According to Wright, “Polite racism proved to be effective, for it tended to lull both Afro-Americans and whites into believing that conditions in Louisville were not as bad as they were elsewhere.”4
Wright reached a much different conclusion about the state in his book on racial violence in Kentucky, however. Staggered by the number of blacks lynched in small towns across the state in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Wright “quickly realized that except for Louisville and Lexington, the state was similar to the Deep South.” “It became clear,” he concluded, “that racial violence, the reverse of polite racism, also existed in Kentucky and was probably more prevalent than the polite racism found in Louisville.”5
But this urban-rural division leaves little room for exploring the complexities, challenges, and changes Kentucky African Americans...