Muhammad Ali gained worldwide fame as a heavyweight boxer, but have you ever heard of another champion fighter from Louisville named Rudell Stitch?
What do you know about African Americans in the eastern Kentucky coalfields?
How about aviatrix Willa Brown Chappell, early slave Captain Jack Hart, or the Bowling Green rap group Nappy Roots?
These are a sampling of the more than 1,000 entries in the new “The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia,” published last month by the University Press of Kentucky. Co-editor Gerald Smith, a history professor at the University of Kentucky, appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss the book and how history influences current events in the commonwealth.
The Courage and Creativity of Black Kentuckians
The encyclopedia is believed to be the first volume of its kind to chronicle black life in any state in the nation. The book joins “The Kentucky Encyclopedia,” which was published for the state’s bicentennial in 1992, and subsequent regional volumes exploring Louisville and northern Kentucky.
Smith says 152 writers contributed to the African American Encyclopedia, including college professors, local historians, and graduate students who combed through libraries, archives, and personal collections around the state. Smith says the seven-year process of compiling the book enriched his own knowledge of African-American history in the commonwealth.
“I actually learned a lot from the people and places that are included,” Smith says. “The sacrifice, the struggle, the creativity, the courage that it took for them to navigate the environment they were forced to live under.”
In addition to reading about Louisville welterweight boxer Rudell Stitch, Smith says he was fascinated to discover how many African American college presidents hailed from Kentucky, as well as the significant number of black newspapers and community baseball teams that could be found around the state.
Stimulating Intellectual Curiosities
The encyclopedia features a diversity of events, organizations, and people from pioneers like Captain Jack Hart, who is believed to be the first African American to explore the Kentucky frontier, to Glasgow’s Willa Brown, the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license. Each entry begins with a short summary that’s designed to encourage readers to linger and explore.
“We wanted to make it user friendly and we wanted to make it readable [so] that it wasn’t so dense that it’s only accessible to college-educated folks,” Smith explains. “We wanted to make something young people could pick up and read through, and hopefully… stimulate their own intellectual curiosities.”
Smith says one of his goals for the encyclopedia is that it will help improve what middle and high school students learn about African-American history in the state, especially the heroes who hailed from their own communities. He says 85 of Kentucky’s 120 counties are represented in the book.
“I’m hoping that it will inspire community leaders and educators and politicians to do all they can to preserve and collect and share not only the African-American experience but Kentucky history,” Smith says.
The Jefferson Davis Debate
The relevance of history to current times played out in a dramatic fashion this summer after nine black parishioners were shot at a South Carolina church. Several southern states including Kentucky have since debated what to do about Confederate symbols on public grounds.
In August the Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted to keep a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the rotunda of the Kentucky capitol, despite opposition from civil rights activists, local history professors, and a bipartisan group of political leaders.
Smith says he disagrees with the decision and the composition of the group charged with making it: the 14 members of the advisory commission are all white. He contends that lack of diversity illustrates the deeper issues of institutional racism and discrimination that still plague Kentucky and other southern states. And he says he’s disappointed that nine innocent people had to die for people to realize that the Confederate battle flag and Confederate memorials like the Jefferson Davis statue might be inappropriate.
“That’s what it took to get us to this point where somebody said, ‘Oh, wow, this doesn’t look good,’ where African Americans had been saying for years that something’s wrong with this picture,” Smith says.
The professor adds that the debate is really about who controls and preserves our state and nation’s collective memory. Historically, whites in positions of authority made those decisions, but Smith says an increasing number of African American scholars are now able to challenge traditional views of history. Smith concludes with this wish: that the energy being spent on the Jefferson Davis sculpture could be focused instead on improving education in the commonwealth.