The city that borders the Ohio River, Louisville, preserves the life and legacy of so many Black souls; the knowns and the unknowns. Stories that originate with captured people walking through Main Street in chains to legacies revered over time in boxing, racing, and what Kentucky is best known for, bourbon.
Established by Louisville Tourism last year, an additional feature of this fascinating city is the recent debut of The Unfiltered Truth Collection. This series features eight immersive reenactments that take visitors back in time to experience the Black heritage of Louisville.
Learn through reenactments of enslaved Africans at the Historic Locust Grove home. Understand who Tom Bullock was, his contribution to bourbon, and how he became the first Black male self-published author. Listen to “Little Sista,” Mary Ann Fisher, as she tells you about her life in music.
“A trip to Louisville offers visitors a chance to have experiences that can’t be found anywhere else in the world. There’s only one Kentucky Derby, one Louisville Slugger, and one Muhammad Ali – and the city has a museum dedicated to each in this iconic sports trifecta. Add walking the Bourbon Trail, underground ziplining, and a ride on the country’s oldest steamboat, and visitors will have a tough time squeezing everything in,” tells Jordan Skora, marketing communications manager of Louisville Tourism.
Roots 101 African American Museum
History enthusiastic, CEO and founder Lamont Collins gifted Louisville and America with a museum that is unique and tells the story of Black history differently than other locations. His touchable museum, Roots 101 African American Museum, allows all people to come and take part in an enriching, emotional African American journey.
“First, I called it Roots 101 because in higher education, the first class you take is 101, so as you go through the museum, the way I have it designed is it starts in Africa because our story starts in Africa. You’ll see our connection although we were disconnected through slavery, we are still connected to Africa regardless of slavery and no other ethnic group can say that,” he says.
“I always say we are the descendants of kings and queens. We were bulldozers before bulldozers, jackhammers before jackhammers, and engineers before engineering degrees, which means we built this place. So, when you come to Roots, it’s a healing space. We pull back the wounds of America and we treat the wounds, and the only way to treat the wounds is with the truth.”
Some of the exhibits included are Protest to Progress, which shares the strategic loss of Louisville’s own Breanna Taylor and the Black Lives Matter Movement, Big Momma’s House, which explores the significance of family history and family ties in the Black community, and Black to the Future, which helps children, especially Black children, to understand that no matter what Black Americans have gone through, they still have a future.
Black Heritage in Racing in Louisville
The Kentucky Deby is an event that many wait in anticipation of. Annually, spectators pour into Churchhill Downs eager and excited, dressed in their Sunday best, with freshly shined shoes and hats to match. The jockeys, primarily of Hispanic and European descent, train extensively for the race that can make or break their career in around two minutes. However, the look of racing today is much different than it originally was.
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Keyana Bilyeu, assistant front desk manager and tour guide of the Black Heritage in Racing Tour at the Kentucky Derby Museum, shares, “Our race, the Kentucky Derby, has been going on for 147 almost 148 years, and the very blood of our sport is built on African American people who were taken from their homeland and brought over to the United States. And very quickly, racing became a big part of culture, and these Black trainers and jockeys just weren’t recognized for the excellence they had. They were afforded some privileges but definitely were not as equal as their white counterparts in these races.”
“We ran our first derby on Monday, May 17, 1875. There were 15 horses that went to post, 13 of those 15 horses were ridden by Black jockeys. And our winner of the derby, Oliver Lewis, was a Black jockey.”
Aristides is the horse that Lewis rode in the derby, and not only was the first jockey Black but so was the trainer, Ansel Williamson, who was emancipated out of slavery. Although long overdue, Williamson was finally inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1998.
Other Black jockeys who also won the derby were George Garrett Lewis (1880), Oliver Lewis’ brother, Alonzo Clayton (1892), James “Soup” Perkins (1895) and Isaac Murphy (1884,1890, 1891), better known as “the GOAT” of racing, who became the first jockey to win multiple races. “He actually was so good at racing that at the peak of his career, he was recorded as the highest-paid athlete in the United States,” tells Bilyeu.
“15 out of the first 28 derbies were won by African American jockeys.” The last Black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby was Jimmy Winkfield (1901 and 1902). So, what happened? Decades have passed since 1902.
“A lot of what happened started with segregation. How it really affected the track was that Black jockeys were not outlawed, but they made them feel like they couldn’t race,” says Bilyeu.
“In one specific occasion at a track in New York, the white jockeys had formed what they called an Anti-Colored Union, so anytime a Black jockey got a mount, the white jockeys would box that jockey on that horse up against the rail, and if he didn’t lay off the pace or try to throw the race, they would then proceed to beat him with crops.”
Although things like this took place out in the open among many spectators and witnesses, most people remained silent and Black jockeys faded from the limelight.
Over the years, influencers have tried to give attention to the lack of Black jockeys in racing. At one time, MC Hammer bought a horse and so did Berry Gordy in 1980. Currently, the Trifecta Gala is one organization that is working to raise awareness about Blacks in racing as well as Greg Harbut and Raymond Daniels of the Ed Brown Society and Living the Dream Stables.
The Greatest of All Time
There has not been another human being to walk this earth quite like him. He was genuinely astonishing—one of a kind. Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. was born January 17, 1942, and grew up in a very small, low-income neighborhood that was quiet and nurturing. It is where Clay, who grew and became known around the world as Muhammad Ali, received his foundation and fundamental attributes that earned him his rightful place in history.
The Muhammad Ali Center is dedicated to keeping the legacy of Ali vibrant and alive. One of the biggest lessons that the center teaches is that Ali was more than just a boxer. He was a humanitarian who loved people.
“I’m bigger than boxing.” -Muhammad Ali
Jeanie Kahnke, senior director of public relations and external affairs at the Muhammad Ali Center, knew and cherished Ali personally. She explains, “The Ali Center is a cultural and educational center with an award-winning museum experience, and so in addition to our permanent exhibits, we also have temporary exhibits that align with our mission.”
That mission is to highlight Ali’s core principles of confidence, conviction, dedication, respect, giving and spirituality.
Kahnke continues, “I first met Muhammad 20 years ago in early 2002, when we were announcing to the public what our building design was going to look like, and we hadn’t fleshed out the visitor experience yet. Muhammad, he was still big and tall when he walked through. The thing I noticed first about him was his eyes because they swept the room. They were intense, open, loving. It’s like he was memorizing the faces of everyone in the room.”
“Be Great. Do Great Things.” – Muhammad Ali
“Muhammad was very goal-oriented. He knew at the young age of 12-years-old that he wanted to fight, to participate in a career that could really elevate him to a larger ‘public ring,’ and to use that platform to do something beyond his chosen sport. So, he was very dedicated at a young age, and he showed toughness, tenacity and courage.”
At the age of 12, Ali had a life-changing experience that catapulted him into boxing. His new red Schwinn bike was stolen at a Louisville Home Show. While crying, he found a police officer, Sergeant Joe Martin, and professed, “I’m going to whup the thieves if I ever find them.” When Martin asked Ali if he knew how to fight and Ali responded no, Martin offered to teach him how the very next day, since he taught boxing downstairs in the same building as the home show. Muhammad showed up to learn how to box and that is how the legend was born.
“We call this at the Ali Center a Red Bike Moment. It equates to a transformational time in one’s life when you have an opportunity to either go this way or that way. And we all have them, but sometimes we don’t recognize them. For instance, if Muhammad had not gone to learn how to fight, who knows where his life would have taken him…but instead he listened to somebody and he took that opportunity,” says Kahnke.
“Muhammad had a lot of God-given talents that he developed. He was a cultural icon. He was the first three-time heavyweight champion. He was an artist. He was a poet. He was a magician. He was great-looking. He made people feel like they were the most important person in the whole world.
“Muhammad was the greatest because out of all of those gifts he relayed to the world. He did not deviate from his path. He kept his confidence, he kept his humility, and his legacy is really timeless for a lot of reasons. He affected people one by one. Yes, he was on television, and yes, he used his boxing as a platform. He also used media as a platform to amplify his message of social injustice. All-in-all, he just loved people, and people loved him back.”
Ali won a lot against greats like Sonny Liston (1965), Floyd Patterson (1965), Joe Frazier (1971) and George Foreman (1974). However, sometimes he lost and yet did so gracefully.
“I never thought of losing, but now that it’s happened, the only thing is to do it right. That’s my obligation to all people who believe in me. We all have to take defeats in life.” – Muhammad Ali
The Muhammad Ali Center is a life-changing experience and is an official stop on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail and like so many other wonderful locations, is yet another reason to see all that Louisville, Kentucky has to offer.