Behind the Scenes of Segregation in Louisville

Protest at 4th & Chestnut Sts., Louisville, KY, 1961 [BLH_028]

WHAS’s Doug Proffitt recently reported a great two-part story on Louisville’s Walnut Street (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard) corridor, its many historical buildings now plowed under, and the vibrant, primarily Black business and social community that once thrived there. With archival photographs and first-person interviews, Proffitt rightly celebrated and mourned a lost part of Louisville’s history and culture.

But while the piece mentioned the segregation that gave rise to separate commercial districts in the first place, it did not give details of this segregation. It hardly needed to, as the racial climate in Louisville and elsewhere in the first half of the 20th century isn’t exactly unknown or unexamined, nor was the civil rights movement the subject of the piece. However, the following items from the collections of The Filson shed light on the type of specific machinations behind the prejudices faced by Black Louisvillians as they attempted to receive open accommodation at some predominantly-white businesses in the 1950s.

Founded in Cleveland, Ohio in 1911, the Colonnade Company first opened a branch of their restaurant chain in Louisville in 1913. By the 1950s, the chain had restaurants in Rochester, Newark, Cincinnati, and elsewhere. The Louisville location was, from 1926 onward, located in the Starks Building at 4th and Walnut (now Muhammad Ali).

Beginning in the 1940s, Colonnade headquarters periodically distributed memoranda (“circular letters”) to restaurant management and staff. Many of the circulars are on pedestrian topics related to running a chain of restaurants – company policies, suggested décor, dedication to service, etc. The circulars were numbered, and in April of 1952 circular letter number 13 was issued, under the benign heading, “Public Relations – Appearance of Guests.”

The memorandum establishes a dress code for Colonnade restaurants, barring among others patrons in “overalls or soiled work clothes” and “men or women in shorts or otherwise scantily clad.” Taken by itself, this restriction on a restaurant located in the heart of a then-thriving business district might merely be seen as an attempt to maintain a professional, business-like environment in a restaurant seeking the downtown lunch crowd. But taken in combination with the following memorandum, another potential interpretation appears.

Circular letter number 14, under the subject line, “Public Relations – Undesirable Guests,” was issued on August 19, 1953:

There can be no mistaking the intention of this memorandum. Opening with invocations of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which had been ratified on December 6, 1865 (87 years, 8 months, and 13 days before the circular was issued), and the Fourteenth Amendment (July 9, 1868; 85 years, 1 month, 10 days) as if they had newly been adopted and needed explanation, quickly gives away the game as to the identity of the “undesirable guests” of the subject line. Especially in a border state like Kentucky (though it didn’t ratify either amendment until 1976), it was no mystery that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments had been passed. Nor should it have been so in the comparatively moderate states that were home to other Colonnade locations. The amendments had been the law of the land for 50 years before the Colonnade Company was even founded. Bear in mind that the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka wasn’t decided until the year following the publication of this memorandum.

Protest at 4th & Chestnut Sts., Louisville, KY, 1961 [BLH_028]

Protest at 4th & Chestnut Sts., Louisville, KY, 1961 [BLH_028]

Note that circular number 13 (and, oddly and presumably coincidentally, the two circulars bear the same numbers as the relevant constitutional amendments) is specifically cited in number 14. The relationship is reinforced by the comment in circular no. 14 stating that public accommodations could be refused as long as they were refused “for reasons applicable to all persons.” There can be little doubt that, in retrospect, even the relatively benign circular number 13 could be used in service of segregation.

It is a broadly accepted historical fact that the end of the Civil War did not put an end to discrimination and segregation in this country. Antiquated opinions on racial integration persisted easily in segregated societies. The pronounced injustices that lingered on into and through the 20th century resulted in anger and action. Nearly a decade after the Colonnade circulars, in 1961, segregation was still so prevalent in businesses and housing that Black Louisvillians and their allies were moved to carry out sit-ins and protests to achieve the rights guaranteed to them by the Constitution. High school students and other community members put their bodies and lives on the line to achieve equality, and in the following years the city government enacted measures to ensure open accommodations.

The stories of Louisville’s civil rights activists and activities are numerous, and are critical to understanding our city’s history. The Colonnade Company memoranda do not tell those stories, but they help foster an understanding of the society in which thriving downtowns were segregated and in which members of the community were left with little alternative to vocal peaceful protest in pursuit of an end to both legal and socially-enforced segregation.

Aaron Rosenblum

Aaron Rosenblum is an Associate Curator of Special Collections at The Filson Historical Society.

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