How Busing In Louisville Inspired Charles Booker To Fight Injustice: An Excerpt From His Memoir

Apr 27, 2022 at 1:33 pm
Charles Booker.
Charles Booker. Provided photo.

[Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Charles Booker’s new book, “From The Hood To The Holler: A Story Of Separate Worlds, Shared Dreams, And The Fight For America’s Future.” The book is currently available at Carmichael’s Bookstore and wherever else books are sold. Booker will be at Carmichael’s Bookstore on Wednesday, April 27 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. for a meet and greet. Find more info here.]

“THE WEST END is the best end!” we used to shout when I was younger. We had so much pride in our community. The West End was filled with hardworking families who’d fought the indignities of segregation, who’d been deprived of places to sit down in restaurants and blocked from voting in elections. But that never stole our joy or broke our spirit, and the streets were rich with places to commune and celebrate and show love.

The bonds we developed living in the midst of poverty, crumbling buildings, police sirens, and constant gunshots were a true testament to the power of family and the resilience of community. All the elders like my grandparents used to sit on their front porches like lighthouses, and you could hardly go anywhere in the West End without someone knowing you, especially with my big family. I used to hear “You Deacon Hearn’s grandson?” at least once a week.

click to enlarge The cover of Charles Booker's new book, "From The Hood To The Holler."
The cover of Charles Booker's new book, "From The Hood To The Holler."

Riding down Broadway or Market Street, you were likely to see either a music-filled block party spilling out of a church or a tent revival with folks singing, clapping, and playing the tambourine into the night. Every weekend, folks would make their way to Shawnee Park or Chickasaw Park, two historic parks within minutes of each other. There would be BBQs, cards and domino tournaments, small concerts. There would be races, little league games, football games, basketball tournaments like the Dirt Bowl. My cousins and I would go to the corner store and get the 69-cent bag of Grippo’s and the Faygo orange cream soda. And every Sunday in the summer: cruising. Everyone would clean up their cars and file in to cruise the road that circled around the park.

Other than a few fast food places and dollar stores, the major business chains wouldn’t invest in the West End, but residents in the area worked to create local businesses and infrastructure. From Big Gene’s convenience store to the family-owned Ace Hardware and restaurants like King’s Fast Food Chicken and Annie’s Pizza, folks in the West End found a way to get the things they needed. 

Except schools.

Built on the separate and unequal foundations of Jim Crow, the schools in the West End had always struggled. When the first court-ordered busing plans were rolled out in 1975 to integrate the students and remedy the problem, the backlash was swift. Riots broke out, the Klan marched, and in the years that followed white families accelerated their flight to the suburbs, taking their tax dollars with them and leaving the city schools, particularly those in Black neighborhoods, to fall even further behind.

For elementary school I attended Schaffner Traditional Elementary, a high-performing integrated school not far from our apartment in South Louisville. But once we loved back to the West End, getting ahead meant getting me out of the neighborhood schools and into the better-served schools on the other side of town. Only a certain percentage of students qualified for the busing program, and I still remember my mom’s joy when I got in. It was like we’d won the lottery, like there was a glimmer of hope that I would be able to get ahead. I was excited because she was excited. But I was nervous, too. It meant that I would be going to school without many of my friends. It meant a four-hour round trip every day. But there was no discussion about whether I wanted to do it or not. It was what we needed to do to get by. Which is why, starting with Barret TMS for middle school and then Male for high school, I was out at that bus stop at 5:30 a.m. every morning.

Riding the school bus from the West End to the East End of the city was always an eye-opening experience. 

The geography of Louisville was governed by race from the beginning. Its location on the Ohio River made it a major slave-trading hub, with the trafficking of human beings taking place in slave pens near the aptly named Market Street, the same thoroughfare my mother’s house sits off of today. As the area was never a major cotton-growing region, the enslaved people who lived here were mainly domestic servants and laborers. And Kentucky being a border state that did not secede, freedom wouldn’t come for its enslaved people until December 18, 1865, with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (an amendment the state would not formally recognize for over a century, finally ratifying it in 1976).

In the decades that followed emancipation, “Little Africa” sprang up in the area west of what is now downtown. What started as nothing more than a shantytown built by formerly enslaved people quickly grew into a thriving community run by self-sufficient Black entrepreneurs who built and owned their own homes, clubs, schools, nightclubs, and parks—only to have their community seized by the city through eminent domain to be bulldozed and paved over for the Watterson Expressway.

After Little Africa was destroyed, Black ambition rose up again, this time in what would become the bustling corridor known as Walnut Street, Louisville’s Harlem. It was the business district where Black families could get insurance and bank loans. It was also the nightlife district where the greatest blues and jazz performers in the country would come to play. Walnut Street is where Dr. King marched. It’s where Muhammad Ali had his parade when he won gold at the 1960 Olympics. A place that celebrated the Black community, Walnut Street was nonetheless open to everyone. 

But many in authority came to fear the growing power of a rising Black community and its demands for equality. They also coveted the increasingly valuable real estate that Walnut Street occupied, with its proximity to downtown. Then came the “urban renewal” plans of the 1960s, which gave state and local governments the pretext to clear out what they called “slums.”

In cities across the country, urban renewal became known as “Negro removal,” and in Louisville that’s exactly what it did. It pushed the Black community farther west and erected a wide, high-traffic thoroughfare along 9th Street, creating a barrier that walled off the Black community from the rest of the city, physically and in every other way. With Black families confined to the West End, the predatory real-estate practice known as blockbusting was used to drive out the remaining white homeowners, and the whole area was redlined by banks and insurance companies, starving it of the investment and mortgage capital a functioning community needs. Three decades later, thanks to the lessons my grandfather taught me, when I looked out the window on my bus ride, I didn’t identify my self-worth with the crumbling, dilapidated landscape passing by me. I wasn’t looking at a slum. I was looking at a history lesson written in rotting wood and busted-up concrete.

The most startling moment in the journey always came as we crossed 9th Street. On a map, 9th Street looks like any other road, but crossing over it was like entering a different world. As we rode east, the trash on the streets vanished, abandoned buildings and graffiti gave way to thriving businesses and manicured lawns. The cop cars disappeared. As we approached the wealthier neighborhoods around the school, we rode past grand houses, some with stained-glass windows that cast beautiful colors on the grass. People would be out walking their dogs, which was incredible to see. We loved dogs in my family, but nobody in the West End “walked” their dog; you just let them run around in the yard. Here, folks were strolling along with a dog leash in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, looking relaxed and at peace, not even thinking they might have to soon run from police or duck from a gunshot. I envied that, just like I envied the other students I saw as we finally pulled up in front of school, the ones getting dropped off in BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes as we pulled up in our dusty old school bus after the interminable ride, already tired before the day had even begun.

As much as I envied the life I saw east of 9th Street, it pissed me off, too. Everyone deserves a safe place to walk a dog or go shopping. Everyone deserves sidewalks that aren’t torn up and streets without potholes big enough to swallow a car. Everyone deserves to go a day without yellow tape or police sirens, no matter which side of town they live on. But the West End didn’t have that. All we had was the bus, driving children over and through the problem that nobody wanted to fix, and every time I rode through the problem the anger and the sense of injustice I felt lit a fire inside me. If nobody else was going to fix it, I wanted to try.

Adpated from FROM THE HOOD TO THE HOLLER by Charles Booker. Copyright © 2022 by CBIKY LLC. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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