- It Was North of Tennessee: African American Migration to Louisville and the Meaning of the South
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 3, Number 3, Fall 2003
- pp. 37-52
- View Citation
- Additional Information
It Was North of Tennessee: African American Migration to Louisville and tbe Meaning of tbe South LUTHER ADAMS n 1925,Clara Smith recorded a song called" The L & N Blues"that referred to the railway that ran between Nashville and Louisville and then into the North. As she sang the following lyrics, she suggested one way many African Americans conceived of the South: I'm a ramblin' woman,I' ve got a ramblin' mind I' m a ramblin' woman, I've got a ramblin' mind I' m gonna buy me a ticket and ease on down the line MasonDixon line is down where the South begins MasonDixon line is down where the South begins Gonna leave a Pullman and ride the L & N.1 The L & N Blues"directs our attention to the need to examine the way African Americans conceived of their own southernness, and especially how the more than 17,000 African American migrants who came to Louisville,Kentucky , between 1930 and 1970 defined the South.2 Clara Smith' s " L & N Blues" shows us that the South was a region defined not so much geographically as it was culturally,or more specifically ,by its politics of oppression. For many black southerners like Clara Smith, the South meant segregation, the enforcement of Jim Crow laws and customs, and her blues shows uS that this boundary began in Kentucky. According to the " L & N Blues," the South began there not so much because one crossed the Ohio River,but because that was where African American passengers riding on the Louisville and Nashville were forced out of first class accommodations in Pullman cars and into segregated seating. In the minds of many African Americans, what made Louisville and Nashville Railroad,No. 924. Tbe Cincinnatibound traill travels a trestle spanning Bank Lick Creek in northern Kentucky. The Pilson Historical Society FALL 2003 37 r the South distinctive was the oppression of Jim Crow. African Americans, however,did not conceive of the South as a land of oppression only,but also as a site of resistance and more importantly as home. African American migration to Louisville, Kentucky, raises a number of critical questions concerning our understanding of black migration in twentieth century America as a whole.3 First,it brings into question our historical preoccupation with migration to the urban North, and it highlights the importance of examining African American migration within the South. Secondly, African American migration to Louisville offers an opportunity to explore the multiple ways African Americans conceived of the South, as a site of oppression ,as a site of resistance and as Home. For many black southerners these were not competing viewpoints of the South, but rather views many held concurrently. In short,African American migration to Louisville suggests the importance of regional distinctiveness within the South. Although many A tobacco warehouse in African Americans rightly viewed Louisville as different than the Deep South, Louisville,Kentucky. Tbe at no time did they view it as anything but southern. By examining African Filson Historical Society American migration in Kentucky,I hope specifically to enrich our understanding of black life in Louisville,and generally to improve our grasp of the history of African American migration and civil rights in America as a whole. 1ormostmigrants in Louisville,the South they encountered in Ken tucky was somewhat different from the South they had known before. Unlike most of the southern states,Kentucky never officially seceded from the Union during the Civil War,and it never endured a period of Federally mandated Reconstruction. Kentucky also walked a different path econornically . Whereas cotton reigned as king throughout much of the South, Kentucky' s economy remained after the war relatively more diverse. Tobacco, coal mining and commerce and industry,rather than cotton, undergirded Louisville' s economy. Kentucky,and Louisville in particular,then held a pe38 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY IT WAS NORTH OF TENNESSEE culiar position in the Upper South as a border state, something that Clara Smith' s lyrics tend to obscure by drawing a sharp division between North and South at the Ohio River.4 Perhaps the most significant difference between Kentucky and places in the Deep South from which most African Americans migrated iii the twentieth century lay in...