- Way Up North in Louisville: African American Migration in the Urban South, 1930-1970 by Luther Adams
This book examines African American movement within the South during the Second Great Migration. It covers a significant amount of historical ground: migration, civil rights, southern identity, busing, urban renewal, and open-housing demonstrations. The volume highlights the organizations, personalities, issues, and events which shaped the city of Louisville during the modern civil rights era. In doing so, Adams’s work fits nicely with George C. Wright’s study, Life Behind a Veil: Blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, 1865-1930 (1985).
Adams offers a compelling narrative on the circumstances which brought southern African Americans to Louisville and the reasons they chose to make the city their home. He notes its proximity to the North, the growing number of defense-industry plants during World War II, and the fact that Kentucky African Americans could vote in political elections. Black migrants to Louisville found that the city connected them to the South. It was part of their southern identity which was built around family, culture, and place. Instead of leaving the South because it was a region known for segregation, discrimination, and racial violence, migrants chose to work and live in the South. They came to Louisville determined to fight for racial equality. From their perspective, Louisville was the South; Louisville was home.
One of the migrants who came to Louisville was Lyman T. Johnson who migrated from Columbia, Tennessee, in 1930. Johnson was a schoolteacher and a civil rights activist. He divided Kentucky “into two parts, Louisville and the rest of the state. Louisville is oriented to [End Page 591] the North, culturally and commercially. The rest of Kentucky looks to the South” (p. 39). On the surface, Louisville appeared to be more progressive and racially tolerant. Public transportation was not legally segregated; African Americans served on the police force, and school desegregation underwent a peaceful transition in the 1950s. Segregation in housing and public accommodations existed in the city, but interracial coalitions which included the Urban League, YWCA, YMCA, and the Louisville Council of Churches, among others, sought to erase these forms of discrimination.
Yet, as Adams’s book deftly notes, white Louisvillians were not willing to surrender power and authority to a rising African American population easily. As the civil rights movement gained momentum on the national front, African Americans in Louisville engaged in various strategies to expand their rights. There were demonstrations at Taylor’s Drugstore, Ben Snyder’s Department Store, and Stewart’s Department Store. The participation of African American high school students was critical to the local movement. In February 1961, a “Nothing New for Easter” boycott placed even greater pressure on downtown businesses to treat African Americans equal to whites. At the forefront of the demonstrations were members of the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality. Following three years of demonstrations, the city passed the first public-accommodations ordinance in the state in May 1963.
While Adams’s book does a nice job exposing the differences between civil rights leaders and the strategies they employed to end segregation, his most interesting discussion revolves around the commitment of black migrants to eradicating discrimination in the city. African American migrants augmented the civil rights leadership in the city. They came to the city ready to build upon networks, work with coalitions and civil rights groups, and exercise black political power to push for racial change.
Because whites controlled the process and timing of urban renewal, Africans Americans found themselves facing a never-ending challenge. The historic black business district on Walnut Street was [End Page 592] abolished. The fight for open housing and school desegregation in Louisville revealed quite explicitly the level of resistance whites would exercise to prevent attempts to further desegregate the city. And, while an open-housing ordinance and state law was passed, these measures did not alter the urban landscape to the degree blacks had hoped for...