People know Louisville, Kentucky, for its bourbon and its Thoroughbreds, but they may not know about the Black community’s rich contributions to both. They may not know that Louisville’s official drink, the Old-Fashioned, was created by a Black bartender. They may not know that the first-ever Kentucky Derby was won by a Black jockey. They may not know that the historically Black neighborhood of Russell was once known as Louisville’s Harlem.
Louisville has an entire hidden history of African American contributions to the community and to the culture, history that Louisville Tourism hopes to showcase to visitors.
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which was launched in January 2018, includes stops in Louisville at the Muhammad Ali Center and the Louisville Downtown Civil Rights Trail. Shortly after its launch, Louisville Tourism officials began exploring options to create its own Black heritage program.
Louisville Tourism realized the African American traveler was a market the organization had not targeted, but “we knew we had a good foundation, especially with the Muhammad Ali piece,” said Saundra Robertson, tourism sales manager.
Louisville Tourism and its partners spent the past several months developing experiences at six attractions to tell six different stories of Black community, culture and contribution. The agency will launch a new initiative, Bourbon City’s Black Heritage Unfiltered Truth Collection, at the African American Travel Conference, March 30-April 1, in Louisville.
“We just really wanted to have some experiences that highlight this history that has never been told before,” Robertson said.
Here are six Unfiltered Truth experiences groups can look forward to when they visit Louisville.
Evan Williams: The Ideal Bartender Experience
Tom Bullock was a Louisville native and a famed pre-Prohibition bartender. He is credited with creating the Old-Fashioned and was also the first African American author to publish a cocktail manual. At the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, groups will go downstairs to the secret Speakeasy — password required to enter — where they’ll be greeted by an actor portraying Bullock. During a 45-minute experience, Bullock will demonstrate how to make an Old-Fashioned as well as another specialty cocktail. While leading the tastings, Bullock will talk about his life and legacy, including how, in 1917, he published “The Ideal Bartender” himself because no one would publish it for him. Guests will leave with a signature Evan Williams cocktail glass and a coaster.
Frazier History Museum
At the Frazier History Museum, groups will learn about African Americans’ contributions to Louisville’s bourbon industry, from the earliest days of still workers at Brown-Forman to today’s pioneering Black Master Distillers. The setting is meant to be similar to that of a distillery; an actor portraying a grounds foreman greets the visitors as though they’re going to be working there.
“African Americans were in the shadows, but you can’t distill the bourbon without doing all the work beforehand, so he leads them through the worker experience,” Robertson said. In addition to bourbon tastings, the experience educates visitors about modern Black-owned distilleries, like Brough Brothers in Louisville; Fresh Bourbon in Lexington, Kentucky; and Uncle Nearest, just outside Nashville, Tennessee.
Roots 101 African American Museum
The Roots 101 African American Museum is set to open this spring, and along with exhibits, artifacts and art, the museum will offer a special Unfiltered Truth Collection experience. During the Sankofa Experience, an actor portraying a West African king will greet the group and lead them from the shores of West Africa to the slave markets of America, telling the story of how a king became a slave. At the “Big Momma’s House” exhibit, another actor playing Big Momma will sit in her rocking chair and tell visitors how African American history has been handed down orally through a rich tradition of stories and song. Other exhibits will explore Black music in Louisville and the rest of Kentucky, African American art and African Americans in horse racing.
Kentucky Center for African American Heritage
One of Louisville’s most important stories of achievement is Walnut Street, which was the heart of the Russell neighborhood known as Louisville’s Harlem. In the mid-1900s, the prosperous thoroughfare was bustling with Black-owned movie theaters, restaurants and nightclubs. For the program’s main experience, local sculptor Ed Hamilton will share stories of growing up in the neighborhood; his mother and father owned a barbershop on Walnut Street, and a chair from his parents’ shop is on display at the center. Videos, archival footage and photographs will highlight the music scene on Walnut Street; Derby season on Walnut Street, and urban renewal, which ultimately led to the demise of Walnut Street. Groups will also learn about Mary Ann Fisher, who was a background singer for Ray Charles.
Locust Grove is an 18th-century farm about six miles from downtown Louisville. Today, the city owns the remaining 55 acres of William Croghan’s original estate, as well as the family’s 1792 Georgian mansion, and operates the property as a historic interpretive site, offering tours of the house and grounds. For its new Unfiltered Truth experience, Locust Grove will share stories from the perspective of enslaved people who lived and worked on the estate, including those who built the house and the 30 to 45 enslaved workers who tended the farm. A laundress reenactor will greet groups and walk them through the house, recounting details about the daily lives and duties of enslaved individuals and sharing some of their experiences. A distillery-assistant reenactor will then take guests outside to learn about activities on the farm and to visit the distillery and kitchen outbuildings.
Kentucky Derby Museum
The Kentucky Derby Museum is located at Churchill Downs racetrack, where the Kentucky Derby has run for the past 146 years. That’s where Oliver Lewis, a Black jockey, won the first ever Derby on May 17, 1875, riding high on the back of Aristides. “Proud of My Calling” is the museum’s new immersive presentation and tour that will feature actors recounting what it was like to be a jockey at Churchill Downs. One of the actors will portray Isaac Burns Murphy, a black American jockey who was the first jockey to be elected to the National Racing Hall of Fame. Groups may also opt to take the museum’s 90-minute African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing Tour, which is separate from the Unfiltered Truth experience. Both, however, end at the museum’s exhibit about Black jockeys.