Off the Trail: A Few More Kentucky Civil Rights Spots to Visit

Cherokee State Park postcard

On Jan. 15, 2018, what would have been Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 89th birthday, 14 southern states announced the US Civil Rights Trail. With more than 100 sites, the trail allows visitors to explore both the well-known and under-represented sites of the American freedom struggle. The new trail, the brainchild of former National Parks Service director, Jonathan Jarvis, is an important development in historical tourism and a welcome addition to the many historical tours that crisscross the South.

Kentucky has three stops along the trail:

  • Lincoln Hall at Berea College
  • Louisville Downtown Civil Rights Trail
  • Whitney M. Young Jr. birthplace at Lincoln Institute.

All three entries are important markers of Kentucky’s contributions to modern civil rights and deserve their spot among the most significant places of social change in the 20th century.

The Civil Rights Trail is a starting point for exploring Kentucky’s civil rights past, but to truly understand Kentuckians’ experiences in the 20th century requires us to know about more than just the moments of large resistance. Everyday existence, pleasure and pain were all part of the struggle. So if you’re visiting the trail or want a few more places to explore, consider these:

  • Downtown Sturgis in Union County. In 1956, more than 300 residents blocked eight African American students from attending Sturgis High School and, thereby, integrating the Sturgis public school system. Gov. A.B. “Happy” Chandler mobilized the Kentucky National Guard to escort the students into the school, but white resistance persisted. The state attorney eventually barred the eight students from the white high school until the Sturgis school board developed an integration plan. The students boycotted the rest of the academic year instead of returning to the segregated school. Sturgis’s schools integrated peacefully in 1957.
  • Cherokee State Park. Now part of Kenlake State Resort Park, Cherokee State Park was Kentucky’s sole blacks-only state park. The park opened in 1951 and was a middle class retreat that drew African Americans from the South and Midwest. It offered 300 acres of land, a beach, cottages, boat and fishing docks, and a 200-person dining hall. Gov. Bert Combs signed an executive order in 1963 that ended segregation in public places, and the park closed in 1964. Many of the cottages were floated on Kentucky Lake to Kenlake. In 2010, the lodge and a cottage were restored on the original property.
  • People now often overlook the city’s civil rights history because it went largely undocumented: the Lexington Herald and the Lexington Leader refused to report news about African Americans and there was no continuous black newspaper. But it is a rich history—from the Lyric Theatre and Deweese Street to the integration of the University of Kentucky to the 1968 bombing of Palmer’s Drug Store on Georgetown Street. Owner and operator Dr. Zirl Palmer, the first African American to own a Rexall franchise and to receive appointment to the UK Board of Trustees, was injured in the bombing, along with his wife, four-year-old daughter and five other people. The perpetrator was a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan; he said he targeted the drug store because an African American owned it.

There are hundreds of other sites of the freedom struggle in Kentucky, many of which historians know little about or have limited sources to interpret. I hope you’ll visit a few of these spots—not just in February—and if you’re so inspired, help us preserve, promote and protect these vital histories.

Chronicle

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