IMPACT: The race and segregation of the 9th Street Divide
“If you really want to talk about the elephant in the room. I mean, let’s just all say what the elephant in the room is – race,” said Renee Murphy who’s spent years covering the West End for WHAS. “I mean that’s the real issue for people when we talk about the divide. It’s the unknown. There’s a certain group of people that predominantly lives in the West End and not in other neighborhoods in the city.”
“Just the whole culture in not having a lot of diversity in the neighborhoods,” said C.J. Daniels as he remembered back to his childhood. C.J. works in the web department at WHAS. “It felt like a setback because you don’t see people different from you.”
“I guess you grew up and didn’t notice it,” remembers EZ Bluegrass, a radio personality in Louisville. “You think everyone is living like you. I didn’t know there was another way to live until you got bused, really. Your first birthday party somewhere else. Then you come back so excited. ‘Guess what I learned, guess what they do out there?’”
“Hatred never ceases by hatred but by love alone is healed,” said Mary Furlong, who lives in the Chickasaw Neighborhood.
“To be as inclusive as I’ve thought I was.”
It’s been a life-long struggle for Mary who moved to her home when she was 13-years-old. Today the quirky, eccentric 75-year-old lives in the same home by the river. She bought it from her parents when they died.
“It tore me up. I was like, I just can’t imagine anybody else living here, I just can’t,” remembered Mary.
A self-proclaimed pack-rat, we interviewed her in one of her many libraries. “It’s like having high-class company,” Mary said looking around at all her books. A company that’s helped her on a journey that started on her street 60 years ago.
"Many for sale signs had gone up around the neighborhood,” recalls Mary. She says people were leaving 47th street because of a new family on the block. “When these two physicians, married physicians, moved next door.”
Mary’s new neighbors were thrown into the center of controversy. Angry block meetings were held in their front yard – the message clear – the new family wasn’t welcome.
Mary says she knew right away where she stood. The reason everyone was so upset is because the new family moving in was black. Everyone else living in the neighborhood was white, including Mary.
“I felt horrible. I thought what is wrong with people, they’re not event trying to get to know him. They don’t even want to know him,” said Mary.
She had a unique perspective on race. Her mother was Italian and tanned easily. As a teen she was turned away from a country club for being “too dark.” Mary says she grew up hearing that story, and she always knew not to judge anyone based on the color of their skin.
Mary says other families living in the neighborhood didn’t share her open mind. For sale signs continued to pop up across Chickasaw as white families left.
“There were rumors that if one black family moves in, the value of your house is going to drop,” explained Tracy K’Meyer, a history professor at U of L. “You’re going to lose your life investment, your life savings, you better get out now while you have a chance.”
K’Meyer has studied the West End at length. She says the history of segregation in Louisville is complex.
“Blockbusting is when real-estate agents would sell a house on a formally white block, to a black family, and then would encourage other white families to move using fear tactics,” she explained.
As whites moved out, urban renewal projects in other parts of the city were reducing the amount of housing available for African American families.
“They didn’t really have any choice but to move to the West End,” explained K’Meyer.
Also in the mix, a group of factories known as “rubber town.” It raised health concerns with worsening air quality causing more families to move. K’Meyer says it’s what some call environmental racism.
“It’s more acceptable in the public eye to put factories that have major environmental impacts in neighborhoods that are distressed, or largely minority,” explained the historian.
White residents moving from the West End, didn’t happen overnight. She says there was a group that banded together to keep the west end integrated and thriving.
“The idea the West End Community Council had was to try to stop that by encouraging families to say, ‘no I’m not leaving.’ So they had people putting up yard signs, signing pledges, that they would welcome black neighbors and not joins this blockbusting rush.”
Some of the issues from then are still the struggles of today.
“There’s a lack of both government and business investment in the West End. One of the big controversies all through the 1960s is the effort to get a shopping center and grocery store,” said K’Meyer.
The battle to become integrated was lost. Today 96% of the people living in Chickasaw are African American. Mary’s a minority on the street, but as happy as ever, comfortable in the one place that truly feels like home. Surrounded by neighbors who accept her.
“If she’s going away, she lets me know. If I’m going to go away, she puts my newspaper in my door,” Mary said, talking about her neighbor.
It’s that kind of neighborly love she tries so hard to extend to everyone.
“I must confess one bias, which is that I’m really prejudice against racist, and I have to own that. I don’t like it,” Mary said.
That’s her battle – the golden rule – treating others like she wants to be treated, even when she thinks what they’re doing is wrong.
“To separate the behavior from the person. That the person is more than the behavior.
Remembering how terribly her neighbors were treated still upsets Mary, but those memories also push her forward.
“Here’s what I’ve figured out about bad people. When those bad people behaved that way to that man and his wife, I can’t…” said Mary, pausing, struggling to understand how any good could come from racism. “It made me a better person. Because in me it awakened a compassion that never went away.
That compassion has driven Mary. She was active in the civil rights movement in Louisville. Later she moved to New York and taught school in Queens - one of the most diverse places on the planet.
Now, Mary’s challenge to everyone is to be slow to judge, understanding that hiding behind a lot of the anger in the world is pain. She says the world could use a lot more of the golden rule.