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Diversity at the Derby; How protests shaped equity during Louisville's busiest time of the year

In 2020, protesters gathered at Churchill Downs refusing to accept the status quo of Derby Day racing while there was still social unrest across the country.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Just two years ago, Churchill Downs was the site of protest. 

Louisville's Black community did not accept the status quo of Derby Day racing while there was still social unrest across the country.

Since then, significant efforts have been made for more inclusivity, affecting diversity during the Kentucky Derby and beyond.

Nachand Trabue, founder of MELANnaire Marketplace, a retail incubator for Black entrepreneurs in Louisville, said amplifying Black businesses during the city's busiest time of the year is essential. "Our lives matter,” she said. 

"Our businesses matter and we matter," Trabue said. "Our community matters and we're standing behind that and we're applying the pressure." 

Dennis Prince, owner of the Prince Collection, has been a vendor at MELANnaire Marketplace for a year now, and he said he understands the importance of highlighting Black businesses during Derby Week.

"I think it's gonna bring, bring a lot of awareness that there's more than just the horses," he said. "That there's just a variety of things to do in Louisville, Kentucky and it's a great city to do it in."

RELATED: Kentucky Derby Festival's 'Block Party' brings inclusivity, celebration to west Louisville

For the first time, MELANnaire partnered with Derby Diversity Week, an organization Tawana Bain started about five years ago.

From panel discussions tackling race tech and more, to hosting block parties and fashion shows, Bain said DDW highlights Black business leaders.

Bain said Churchill Downs is the organization's biggest partner during the Derby, adding that Kentucky Tourism, Louisville Tourism, Woodford Reserve and other orgs also play a big role.

"So many in the diverse community contribute significantly and was at the forefront of the Kentucky Derby, so why not create a vehicle or an engine that allows them to have a seat at the table from an economic perspective,” she said.

A spokesperson for Churchill Downs said 2020's protests opened the organization's eyes.

"It made us very aware that we have a lot of work to do,” Tonya Abeln, vice president of communications at Churchill Downs, said on May 4 at the announcement of a new partnership between the racetrack and the Ed Brown Society.

Churchill Downs donated $50,000 to the organization, which celebrates the history of African Americans in the equine industry and helps support the next generation so they can enter the field. 

Bain said while equity investments matter, Black business leaders have to fill the void where they see them in order to get corporations on board.

“Let’s be innovative," she said. "Let’s go out there and build up the resources that we need especially if they’re in areas where we don’t have them."

MELANnaire Marketplace will be open for Oaks Day shopping at its new location on 416 West Liberty.

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