February 6th, 2008 by The Lexington Herald-Leader

There may be as many as 40 black hamlets -- small communities founded by former African-American slaves -- in the Bluegrass. They are pockets of mostly rural land that are historically and symbolically significant to Kentucky history. Their names -- Bracktown, Fort Spring, Avon, Cadentown, Jonestown, Coletown, Little Georgetown, Maddoxtown, New Zion -- are legend.

Then there are other historic African-American communities in Kentucky that are less celebrated, or more out of the way. To celebrate Black History Month, we thought we'd try to find a few.

SMOKETOWN -- The dyed-in-the-wool Presbyterians of a certain age still come to the community center for lunch. They've lived here for a lot of their lives, sure of their faith in the Lord and this place which has changed so much since they got here back in, oh, 1938 or so.

It's a warm place, they say, despite what you may think by just driving through this six-block by five-block community bunched up against downtown Louisville. It's so much more, they know, than the rundown fringe of the used-to-be community you think you see.

Known for almost 150 years as Smoketown, this has been a black neighborhood since immediately after the Civil War, when "town" meant Louisville and better work than could be found in the fields of the white farmers who had to free you because Abraham Lincoln said so and because there was scant work anyway.

Bess Ezell, one of those dyed-in-the-woolers, is not Smoketown's official historian but she does know that this is the oldest continuously black community in the whole commonwealth. She can tell you there used to be brick kilns around here and that may account for the evocative name. It's also possible, though she does not say so, that "smoke town" was some kind of ugly racial slur.

That's because the small community was built on the rock of segregation. It was, at least in the beginning, the place for Louisville's white people to house their black labor. Or for freed men to live while they worked the wharves or the kilns.

It would grow into a community -- while still segregated -- of doctors, preachers, lawyers, businessmen and teachers. Then integration would come and the once proud population of more than 10,000 souls would dwindle to something like 2,000 today.

Charles Richardson is no historian either, but he can tell you that some of the shotgun houses that used to be here in his youth were built by slaves, "but the projects took them all. "He can tell you about riding the streetcar up Preston and that, funny thing, that was never a segregated line. Which was like a promise of things to come.

He can tell you of Cassius Clay -- "not the boy but his father" -- who was a sign painter. He can tell you where the young Clay -- who later took the name Muhammad Ali -- trained, right over there at the old Presbyterian Community Center where everybody used to go to bathe -- "boys on Monday, girls on Tuesdays."

He can tell you it was a wonderful place to grow up, but that everyone knew "you couldn't go south of Kentucky Street, not north of Shelby, not west of Brooks." Oh, he can go everywhere now but doesn't. He served his country overseas, he moved to Los Angeles, then he came back to live way out on Hurstborne Lane but couldn't wait to get back home. ("I missed the sirens.")

So, too, Elizabeth Coleman.

"I liked it so much I moved back into the same old house," she said. And to the same Presbyterian Community Center which has been the continuously beating heart of this part of town since 1898, when the first African-American mission Sunday school set up shop and started work on improving the lives of those who lived here. It was a place where, says Ezell, "in my day" they taught sewing and boxing, nursing and shoemaking. You could skate in the gym in the winter and play basketball all summer.

"Used to be a rule: If you came to church, they'd let you into the recreation center."

It was all part and parcel of the Rev. John Little's vision. Little, a white man, was the founder of the Presbyterian Colored Missions. In 1912, he brought the Rev. William H. Sheppard, a black missionary fresh from the Congo, to be pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church. (The town's housing project -- originally for war workers, now for underserved families -- is named after Sheppard.)

"I loved Mr. Little," says Richardson, who is now 79. "He was quiet, unassuming but tough."

There was the Boy Scouts of Smoketown he remembers as being quite influential in the area. And there was the ever-presence of Miss Gertrude, who thought she could manage everyone's business and did.

"I used to think I knew everybody in Smoketown," says Ezell. "I worked in the PTA and at church. But a whole lot died. A whole lot moved on. New people came."

More recently, Smoketown has seen more than its share of crime and poverty. It has thirsted for development that is slow in coming. It has suffered a dearth of civic funds. (Explains Richardson: "Not many taxpayers live in Smoketown.")

But it has survived -- if not wholly intact -- wholly in place.

Lunch for the dyed-in-the-wools is over too soon. Coleman goes back to work. Ezell, who is not the spring chicken she used to be, is headed to exercise class.

Richardson lets the ladies pass, then walks on his cane out of the center into the bitter cold sunshine, to walk the streets he would know if he were blind.

And that he would love even if he were a wealthy man.

Amy Wilson can be reached at (859) 231-3305.

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