African American History Initiative

African American History Initiative

Launched publicly in 2023, the African American History Initiative (AAHI) allows the Filson Historical Society to work alongside institutional and community partners to more fully collect, preserve, and share the significant stories of Black history and culture in Louisville, Kentucky, Southern Indiana, and the Ohio Valley region.

The AAHI is a permanent component of the Filson’s Department of Collections and Research. This program will be led by a full-time program manager responsible for the growth and use of the Filson’s African American collections. This long-term effort expands Filson collections, educational programs, and relationships, both building upon existing foundations and filling in identified gaps. Like the entire Filson, it will both convene and drive public and academic conversations about the past but with significant contemporary impact.

The AAHI will be supported by a $3.5 million dollar campaign to raise operational support and an endowment, providing permanent funding for this initiative at the Filson. This investment will enable sustained engagement with the African American community and provide funding for salary, outreach, and associated program and collections expenses. To date, the Filson has received more than $3.2 million in contributions and commitments toward this goal, including an $82,000 Brown-Forman Foundation grant for initial operational funding.

Black history matters. The Filson already has a proud and extensive record of collecting, preserving, and sharing important work on Black history in Kentucky. Our collections contain materials and perspectives on Black businesses, artists, entertainers, architects, educators, churches, families, and more. Our African American History Initiative will help publicize the rich and meaningful stories entrusted to the Filson in the past, and work to collect, preserve, and share new ones.

AAHI Components

AAHI Program Manager – Currently Accepting Applications

Read the full position description here

This permanent, full-time position expands upon the efforts of the Filson Historical Society to more fully represent the history and culture of Kentucky and the Ohio Valley through collecting, preserving, and sharing the stories of Black history and life. This position is supported by the Filson’s African American History Endowment and will supervise support positions including archival staff and interns. This position will draw from skills in community engagement, education, and academic research to represent the Filson as a trusted source for the study and celebration of Black history in Kentucky.

Collections Cataloger(s)

Cataloging positions ensure that collected materials are efficiently made available for research, and intensive review of past cataloging practice ensures that hidden evidence about Black life is uncovered, and that Black perspectives are recognized and honored. The Filson is currently doing this with the Sanders-Bullitt Family Papers.

Funded Annual Internship(s)

These supporting positions reflects needs raised by Black history and archival professionals as well as community members. Internships provide stable pipelines to introduce Black students to history and archival work, compensating them while they build resumes for graduate school and employment in the field.

AAHI Outcomes

  • Engaging in community outreach to build relationships that will allow the Filson to support the preservation of Black history collections in private hands and encourage collection contributions to the Filson, when appropriate
  • Cataloging and preserving the materials received to ensure permanent public access
  • Producing educational programs and exhibitions for general audiences to increase public awareness of Black history and culture
  • Publishing articles about Black history in The Filson newsmagazine and related scholarly and academic articles in peer-reviewed journals, including the Ohio Valley History journal and other publications
  • Providing expert assistance to students, scholars, researchers, and members of the public

Filson Resources on Black History

The AAHI is not the Filson’s first engagement with Louisville’s Black past. Its rich collections and publications have been growing for decades. Some highlights are shown here, especially material available online.

Digital Collections and Exhibits online (digital collections and exhibits – sometimes there are both for the same collection, as an exhibit allows for a different layout) – of specific note regarding Black history:

Manuscript Collections

A note on descriptive bias: the content forming our databases was created over the past 130+ years, and it includes terms that are outdated, offensive, inaccurate and/or harmful. Some of the descriptive language found in our collection guides reflects and re-uses the words and ideas of the people and organizations that created the material. Going forward, we seek to use inclusive, accurate, and respectful language in describing newly acquired and newly processed collections.

Manuscript database (subject level details regarding collections).  Within this database, search terms for African American / Black history can include “African Americans,” “Slavery,” “Slaves,” “Fugitive slaves,” “Freedmen,” “Families, Black,” and “Enslaved”

Please note that many other collections will include information about Black history; this is a highlight of Black creators who were from Kentucky:

Library Catalog – if you do an advanced search, you can limit you search parameters to “Library African American Collection” which is a local notes tag that our catalogers have added for materials that have specific content on African American / Black history. Within this database, search terms for African American / Black history can include “African Americans,” “Slavery,” “Slaves,” “Fugitive slaves,” “Freedmen,” “Families, Black,” and “Enslaved”

African American Genealogy Resources at the Filson

Vertical Files: Some of our vertical files will include specific information relevant to Black history, such as our Historical Files, Newspaper Clipping Files, and Ohio Valley Artist Files.

PastPerfect Online (this database provides item-level description of a small portion of our photograph/image collection – much more is accessible in-house). Best keyword to use “African American

Sampling of In-House Photograph Collections

The Museum Collection is currently under inventory and very little description is accessible online.

In-house access is available via PastPerfect, similarly to the Image Collection. It is worth directly contacting the research account (gro.l1717004656aciro1717004656tsihn1717004656oslif1717004656@hcra1717004656eser1717004656) with questions.

Some items of note include artwork by G. Caliman Coxe, Helen LaFrance, and Arielle Biddix, a fraternal organization ceremonial sword owned by Dinnie Thompson as a member of the Sisters of the Mysterious Ten, and a clothing collection belonging to Geneva Bell (the last two can be viewed in the digital collections/exhibits online).

The Filson has published books and pamphlets on historical topics since its founding in 1884. It has published a quarterly history journal since 1926, first the Filson Club History Quarterly and now Ohio Valley History, published in cooperation with the Cincinnati Museum Center and the University of Cincinnati.

While slavery as a contentious political topic among whites was the subject of numerous early FCHQ articles, as historians turned increasingly to study the Black experience of enslavement and emancipation in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the Filson’s publications followed suit Kentucky historians George C. Wright, Victor Howard, and Lowell Harrison made early, important contributions to this shifting perspective in the 1970s.

The 1990s saw a flourishing of Black history in Kentucky. The series by Dr. Blaine Hudson Hudson in the Quarterly could be compiled together and form an important book on slavery in and around Louisville.

Ohio Valley History has continued this trend, fueled by research conducted on Black life in Kentucky supported through the Filson’s scholarly fellowship program. An especially strong issue in 2002 set the tone:

The next year, one of the most important articles in OVH history was published, Luther Adams’s It Was North of Tennessee: African American Migration to Louisville and the Meaning of the South (2003).

In addition to individual articles, the Filson has commissioned special issues on topics of critical importance to Black studies in Kentucky:

In the wake of the protests after the killing of Breonna Taylor in the summer of 2020, the Filson commissioned a special issue on Black & Indigenous History, which is permanently open access while the rest of our content remains accessible only to members and those with Project MUSE credentials. The introduction to that issue makes insightful links between the past and present, and lays out an ongoing, equitable, and inclusive publishing agenda for the Filson to pursue.

Kentucky-specific topics, of course, have always been important in OVH. Some highlights not previously featured include:

Because of its regional perspective, OVH covers a range of Black experiences in the region, which is an important perspective considering the long-term diaspora of Black Kentuckians seeking freedom and opportunity north of the Ohio River. Some examples include: