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They had a dream

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Black History Month celebrated in Shelby

By Lisa King

February is noted for the observance of history, most notably pertaining to American presidents and African-American history.

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Of course, Valentine's Day falls smack in the middle of the month, but that is very appropriate. Because that is a holiday reserved for love, and most historians are in love with the past.

Or, more appropriately, they are in love with how the past has shaped our future.

And some of those in love with history have publicly displayed their affection.

In observance of Black History Month, Bruce Tyler of Shelbyville gave a presentation last Thursday at the Shelby County Public Library on his book Louisville in World War II.

That book, which contains a large photographic history of World War II, features the 43rd Aviation Squadron/808 Army Air Force Base unit, black troops who were racially segregated from the white troops at Bowman Field in Louisville.

The 43rd numbered about 320 men and comprised 8 percent of the troops at the base. They were sort of handymen or common labor units, but they played a vital roles in preparing Bowman Field to make the transition from a local municipal civilian airport to a fully operational Army Air Forces Base of national significance.

Tyler, who is a history professor at the University of Louisville, set up a display at the library that will be featured all during this month. It contains a wide assortment of photographs of the 43rd and of the base, as well as some artifacts such as uniforms. The photographs belonged to the late Marguerite Davis of Louisville, who was hired in 1942 to work at Bowman Field as a recreational director with the 43rd.

Tyler's book also details the story of the Colored USO, whose camp shows featured Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle shows, Shuffle Along  and Swingin' on Down in 1943.

Tyler said one of the main reasons he has been holding these types of presentations since 2004 is that a lot of African-American history has fallen by the wayside.

“It is all a forgotten history,” he said. “These black troops were totally forgotten.”

Tyler said his book and display is more visually orientated than most, because he believes photographs lend as much understanding of the knowledge of history as do written accounts.

“I really believe that historical pictures and images are just as important as the written word,” he said. “Because people can see history unfold with their own eyes just like they were there.”

In addition to photographic displays and exhibits, theatrical productions are among the visual arts that are used to depict historical topics.

Carlyle Brown of the University of Louisville African American Theater Program presented the play Abe Lincoln and Uncle Tom in the White House at Bethel AME Church on Henry Clay Street in Shelbyville recently.

Gayle Reed, coordinator of the Shelbyville Historic District Commission, said the reason she loves African-American history is because, like Tyler, she feels that it has been “sadly neglected.”

“The schools mostly just teach the accomplishments of famous white men,” she said. “African- American history has just been so neglected; that's why I have been collecting artifacts for years about black history.”

Reed has put together a brochure called “African American Heritage Trail, Shelbyville, Ky.,” which details several black historic sites in the county.

These include the Old Clay Street Baptist Church on Henry Clay Street, which was built in 1888. It is believed to be the oldest African-American church in Shelby County and as early as 1819 had worshipers who gathered in the rear of a white Baptist church.

Another is the African American Skating Rink, located on the south side of the 500 block of Henry Clay Street, where the parking lot of Pontrich Floor Covering now stands. That rink was also used as a community center, and commencements and dances were held there as well. In the late 1940s and 1950s, Tina Turner, the Drifters and Cab Calloway entertained there.

All of the historic sites in the brochure have accompanying photographs, except for Shelbyville's First Colored School, which was located on the south side of Bradshaw in the 500th block.

“I searched and searched for years but couldn't find a picture of it,” Reed said.

The first class to graduate from the school was in 1896. Other schools included an elementary school, which was located on the north side of College Street. The school burned down in 1946. A new colored school was built at 11th and High Streets in Martinsville and was later torn down after integration of the Shelbyville school system. Until integration, the only high school for African-Americans was in Simpsonville at the Lincoln Institute.

The earliest area that African-Americans settled in Shelbyville was on Henry Clay and Bradshaw streets. On the south side of the railroad tracks from Bradshaw and near Clear Creek was an area of a few homes called “Bucktown.” Further down on Henry Clay in the 10th to 11th Street area was a place referred to as “Cabintown.” The Martinsville area developed with streets and homes just before World War I, and Bunker Hill was an addition to Martinsville on the hill across the railroad tracks.

Batesville was an area near 11th Street and Equity Streets that had a settlement of African Americans before their settlement in Martinsville. Another area with a few homes situated west of Martinsville was known as “Indianapolis.”

Black history in Kentucky and Shelby County runs rich and deep, and those who mine it deliver a lode of information to enlighten us all.

 

Want more info? Anyone interested in obtaining a copy of this interesting brochure may contact Reed at the Shelbyville Historic District Commission at 627 Main Street at the Shelbyville Welcome/Heritage Center or by calling 844-2277.       Historic African American Sites in Shelbyville   • Cardwell House, 316 Main Street, built in 1849

• Old Clay Street Baptist Church, 723 Henry Clay Street, built in 1888

• Saffell Calvary Cemetery, 7th Street, established in the 1920s.

• Mount Zion Baptist Church, 704 Washington Street, built in 1921. Originally was the Church of Christ

• Bethel AME Church, 414 Henry Clay Street, built in 1868   Historic African American Sites that have been demolished  

• African American Skating Rink, 500th block of Henry Clay Street, demolition date not given

• Shelbyville's First Colored School, 500th block of Bradshaw Street, burned down in 1946

• St. John Methodist Church, College Street, built in 1896, torn down in 2000.