With the support of the Louisville Story Program, participating authors from Russell residents developed a powerful book about their communities.
Louisville’s Russell area was once dubbed “Louisville’s Harlem” due to its heavy concentration of thriving Black businesses, cultural institutions, and prominent Black residents. For almost 100 years, Central High School was Louisville’s only public high school for Black students and claims numerous notable alumni. The Western Library was the nation’s first public library managed by and for African Americans. Prior to being razed, Old Walnut Street had the most vibrant, densest collection of successful Black-owned businesses our community has ever seen. Quinn Chapel was the epicenter of Civil Rights organizing for marches and sit-ins. Forces like redlining and urban renewal have transformed Russell into an area of concentrated poverty despite its close proximity to Louisville’s central business district.
In spite of this systemic historical and cultural violence, Russell remains central to Black life in Louisville. Although it has just 9,000 residents, it boasts clubs, restaurants, over 30 churches to which former residents return every Sunday, and a renewed sense of investment from residents committed to directing outside development to their collective will and benefit.
Almost $1 billion in investment is transforming the neighborhood. The city recently demolished Beecher Terrace, a thirty-acre housing project built in 1939, and is replacing it with an extensive mixed-income development. Alongside this redevelopment, many other investments are moving forward in the area.
With so much change underway in a place with such historical and cultural significance, it is vital that we document the ways Russell residents sustain community together and the ways that those systems of interaction connect to the past but remain relevant in the present. The massive investments in redevelopment are important, but we must also invest in documenting Russell’s cultural heritage.
We have spent three and a half years partnering with Russell residents to document some of the many rich layers of history and culture in the neighborhood past and present.
Chapters in this book include:
- The journey of one gospel and soul trumpeter from rural Texas to the Motown stage, and finally to his spiritual and musical home in west Louisville, and the thriving youth community choir he founded there.
- The recollections of a west Louisville pastor whose life and career took many twists and turns including: life as a sailor, a shoe salesman, a civic leader, a provocateur, a street mediator, NAACP president, building superintendent, fair housing advocate, father, and now author.
- A once-reluctant restaurant owner describes her work in Russell, letting go of what’s unnecessary, discovering generosity, and how to feed your soul by feeding your neighbors.
- The remarkable history of one family’s four-generation presence in the Russell area highlights the professionalism, organization, and excellence that was so integral to Russell’s foundation, while serving as a timely reminder of the social and cultural toll imposed on west Louisville because of redlining and Urban Renewal.
- A consideration of the front porch as a public/private extension of the living room and a cultural institution.
- A powerfully honest and important account of what it means to grow up in public housing and how to raise a family in neighborhoods that struggle to extract themselves from negative narratives repeated from the outside.
- Previously unpublished accounts from the last resident of the old Beecher Terrace whose public conspiracy trial in the 1960s marked both the most difficult period of his life and the beginning of his remarkable education and eventual position as a fair housing advocate.
- A highlight of the forty-seven houses of worship inside the 1.5 sq. mile footprint of Russell, and the singular importance of the Black church to the history of west Louisville.
- The celebration and history of one annual block party, and the ordinary beauty of building tradition and community one cartoon inflatable and one painted face at a time.
- A glimpse into one young life of street involvement and correctional institutions as the path to violence prevention programming and a spiritual awakening.
And many more examples of important, humane, and vivid storytelling from twenty-six authors with ties to the Russell area.