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May 18, 2011

Two centuries of black Louisville

A few weeks ago, Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer did something strange. He hosted a book launch event at City Hall. I met Mayor Fischer for the first time last year during the primary season. I’ve always liked him, but couldn’t wholeheartedly support his candidacy until the general election because my friend Tyler Allen was in the race. Loyalty still means something to me. To date, I must say Fischer has not disappointed as the city’s point man after taking over for Jerry “The King” Abramson. In fact, he has shined.

The City Hall book event debuted “Two Centuries of Black Louisville: A Photographic History,” by J. Blaine Hudson, Ken Clay and Mervin Aubespin. When asked about the unusual move of hosting a book event at City Hall, Mayor Fischer coolly responded, “Hey, this is the people’s house, man — and I think this is an important project.” I think I’m going to like this mayor.

Fischer is right — this is an important project. Hudson, Clay and Aubespin have produced a sprawling work spanning from Spanish residents of Florida importing the first enslaved Africans in 1581 to Louisville’s founding in 1778 to the present. In between, the authors offer incredible tidbits about Louisville in the historical context of American and global happenings.

In a sense, “Two Centuries of Black Louisville” is misnamed. It is not simply a photographic history. On first blush, the title leads the reader to believe that he or she is about to thumb through a coffee table picture book. The book is anything but. There is certainly an artistic feel to the work. The photos are impressive, but it doesn’t stop there.

The book’s eclectic impressiveness is not surprising given the authors. Ken Clay has long been a mover and shaker on Louisville’s arts and culture scene since the ’50s, founding Louisville’s first black culture shop (Corner of Jazz at 28th and Greenwood). He has a deep sense of the community, so he understands many Louisville linkages that most of us do not. Beyond that, “Cool Ass Ken” (as I like to call him) is arguably the smoothest cat in Louisville (if not for Ed Hamilton, Bob Douglas and Blaine Hudson, it wouldn’t even be arguable).

Louisiana native and legendary journalist Mervin Aubespin has spent most of his life in Louisville. Aubespin was the first African-American news artist hired by The Courier-Journal in the ’60s. His real world and professional experiences led to a national reputation as an expert on racism and the media. It is well deserved. It doesn’t take long to figure out Merv is a lifelong politically engaged man with a deep affection for Louisville. It shows in his contribution to this book, which all the authors call a “labor of love.”

Finally, University of Louisville icon J. Blaine Hudson’s influence on the book is evident. His deft handling of American history, how it influenced Louisville, and how Louisville influenced it is unsurpassed. Hudson, the first African-American Dean of U of L’s College of Arts & Sciences, writes and speaks in the style of an immortal. His literary and oral expositions on Louisville often give one the sense that he did not “research” time periods in the far past but actually lived through them. It is an impressive talent.

What emerges from Clay’s cultural and artistic sensibilities, Aubespin’s passionate journalistic roots, and Hudson’s unmatched historical acuity is not a simple photographic history. The end product is one in which the text is not a “throw in” to compliment the pictures. The words, in fact, could stand alone. But, when paired with the beautiful and sometimes stirring photographs, we have something special. Combine this with the award-worthy layout and packaging by the folks at Butler Books, and “Two Centuries” emerges as nothing less than an immediate local literary masterpiece.

This book is an indispensable gift to the city, and Mayor Fischer was correct — City Hall was the only proper place for it to debut. “Two Centuries of Black Louisville” is not just for blacks. It’s for all Louisvillians who want to peek into this great city’s past, contextualize its present, and plan for its future. Every Louisville home should have a copy. I only wish such a work existed for my hometown of Atlanta.

Until next time … maintain!