Last year, I had the opportunity to join Until Freedom in New York City during the height of the Breonna Taylor protests to speak at a rally. It was one of the first times that I had traveled on an airplane since the coronavirus’ onset, and truthfully, I was terrified. At the time, New York was the epicenter of COVID-19, with thousands of reported cases. However, racism never takes a day off, not even during a global pandemic. Black people do not have the luxury of choosing which issue we are going to fight. But that is another blog for another time.
While I was in New York, I assumed it would be a ghost town; however, many people were out and about, faces covered in masks, enjoying life. My partner and I decided to go to Brooklyn for dinner, and we could not get a table. While patrons had to eat outside, every single spot was taken, and we ended up getting our food to go and heading back to the hotel to enjoy our oxtails, greens, rice and Jamaican wings. It was delicious and a reminder that not even being at the coronavirus’ epicenter kept people from going out. New York City had culture. It had variety. It had soul, flavor and spice. It was not whitewashed.
Then I returned to Louisville.
I returned to a city still reeling from the murder of Breonna Taylor, subsequent protests and the coronavirus’ impact on our local economy. As articles were shared online about various businesses closing downtown, undoubtedly, people who have not ventured downtown in the past year blamed the closings on the protests. Let’s be clear, businesses closing downtown has nothing to do with the protests. Do not allow people that are fighting for justice to be the scapegoat. If pointing to the protests is your excuse for downtown’s failing economy, you are missing it.
Long before the murder of Breonna Taylor, my friend, who travels the country as a social media influencer, texted me and asked, “What’s going on with your downtown? Everything closes at five.” I said, “Downtown was never designed for anyone other than white working people. Once they leave, downtown essentially closes.” Louisville has painted itself into a corner. Once the coronavirus hit, the people they designed downtown for went home to their neighborhoods of comfort, and downtown cannot sustain itself. Not because people wouldn’t support downtown but because there is nothing downtown to drive Black people or People of Color to it. There are no retail shops with a cultural base, hardly any food with soul and flavor. Outside of a few exceptions, such as Roots 101, the Muhammad Ali Center and KULA Gallery, downtown is completely whitewashed.
In my poem “Spaces,” I write, “The architecture and atmosphere is constructed in such a way that I know, and we know that these are not our spaces.” No one needs to tell me that downtown is not designed for me. Downtown is designed in such a way that screams, “You do not belong here.” It is constructed in such a way that says, “This area is not made for you.” This is nothing new as we look at Louisville’s history and the 1960s “Nothing New For Easter” campaign. This campaign was a boycott of clothing stores by Black people that intended to apply economic pressure on store owners during the ordinarily busy Easter season. The protests were focused on the Fourth Street shopping district, where Black people were often discriminated against and harassed when attempting to make purchases or eat at certain restaurants. Sit-ins took place at:
· Walgreen’s Drugstore (526 S. Fourth St.)
· Stewart Dry Goods (510 S. Fourth St.)
· Kaufman-Straus (533-49 S. Fourth St.)
· Blue Boar Cafeterias (410 W. Walnut St.)
· Sit-in Demonstration Sites Introductory Marker (Fourth and Guthrie streets)
· Kentucky Theater & Ohio Theater (651 S. Fourth St.)
· Mary Anderson Theater & Rialto Theater (610 S. Fourth St.)
· Penthouse/United Artists Theater (625 S. Fourth St.)
· The Brown Hotel (335 W. Broadway)
· The Brown Theatre (315 W. Broadway)
Louisville’s downtown area has a history of racism. As we look at Fourth Street Live currently, Cordish Companies, the operator of Fourth Street Live, repeatedly denied complaints from Black people that they have faced racism there. However, trust me, Black people in Louisville did not all get together and say, “Let’s say Fourth Street Live is racist.” Fourth Street Live didn’t need to put up “Whites Only” signs. All they had to do was enact policies that were geared to target Black people. The policies told Black people this area is not designed for them. So what would compel me to visit downtown? I refuse to spend my money where I am made to feel uncomfortable and as if I do not belong. When you construct your downtown on racist systems and policies, it is not going to sustain itself. And now the chickens are coming home to roost, and it will only grow worse unless the leadership in Louisville starts to reconcile with its history and then decides to change — to make downtown more inclusive.
Louisville is in a position to either start redesigning downtown so that it will be inviting for all people to come or watch it continue to fail. The nation is changing, and it no longer trends towards whitewashing. If Louisville wants to change the economics of downtown, it can no longer lead with whitewashing downtown. It can no longer lead with allowing businesses to take up residence downtown with racist policies.
When I think about revitalizing downtown, the first thing that comes to mind is Lamont Collins’ desire to open the Roots 101: African American Museum. I was overjoyed that finally a museum with my history and my culture was in my own hometown.
I have traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. I have traveled to Mississippi and Louisiana to visit plantation homes and see the Forks of the Road, the second-largest slave market in the South. I traveled to Alabama to see The National Memorial for Peace and Justice and to stand on The Edmund Pettus Bridge. In each of these locations, I spent money on hotel rooms, food, car rental or Uber, souvenirs, etc. Culture is simply good for business.
One of the most economically useful things this city can do for downtown is investing in Roots 101. If we are going to be a city that declares racism a public health crisis, how do we start to right that? Lip service doesn’t cut it anymore. Where this city’s money is, is where its values reside. If this city claims it wants to be more inclusive, why is this museum struggling financially? The museum will benefit this city. Even if you cannot wrap your mind around the right thing to do, wrap your mind around the financial benefit of having an institution that Black people will want to visit. Support this museum in becoming the premier location for African American History in Kentucky.
Then take a good hard look at downtown and truthfully ask yourself, would I, as a Black person or Person of Color, want to visit this city? Would an NBA team with predominately Black players feel comfortable moving their team here? As a young, progressive-thinking Black person would I want to move to this city? Would I feel comfortable raising my Black children in this city? If I was a Black person coming to this city would I feel comfortable? Are there places downtown that I would feel see me, understand me? Do not seek to find answers to those questions with a mind of gentrification. Think with a sense of inclusion and invest in people and businesses that do not whitewash the city but add flavor to the city. That is how downtown will thrive. •
If you would like to donate to Roots 101: African American Museum, visit roots-101.org and look for a “donate” tab at the top of the homepage.