Anti-busing protesters take to the streets of Louisville in 1975. H.B. Littel/AP

A new online mapping project is aimed at dismantling the Kentucky city’s grim legacy of racial segregation.

The phrase “sold down the river” came from Louisville, Kentucky, where the enslaved were traded in one of the largest slave markets of the 19th century. The Louisville Slave Pens, located in the city’s downtown, held and exported enslaved black laborers to large plantations in the Deep South via the Ohio River. As the website for the new online mapping project Redlining Louisville states, “These slave pens represent the origins of the black residential experience in Louisville.”

By the early 20th century, when African Americans began settling in Louisville in droves after escaping racial terror in the South, their living experiences had changed only sightly. They owned homes, but were trapped in unlivable conditions. And it was kept that way thanks to the redlining policies created by the city, the private lending sector, and even the federal government. Redlining Louisville chronicles that process, and it’s been adopted by the city of Louisville to draw more attention to this grim chapter in the city’s history.

“When I started the research, I hoped that it would be used at the grassroots level, and I also hoped it would be used by planners,” says Joshua Poe, the urban planner who developed the project. “It feels like planners in the U.S. sort of exist in a history vacuum. It’s important for them to look at this information and understand that a lot of city planning really involves dismantling systems like zoning and redlining.”

On the website, users interact with a city map from 1937 that shows how the city was carved up for real estate investment purposes. Poe discovered a trove of documents in D.C.’s National Archives that show how lenders used race, class, and the number of immigrant families residing in an area to determine its value. Users can view these documents from the maps and also compare the city’s racial and class population distribution between 1937 and 2010.

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Beginning this week, the city will embark upon a year-long series of community dialogues so residents and city officials can discuss this redlining history and how it might inform better economic policies moving forward. This came about after Louisville’s Redevelopment Strategies Director Jeana Dunlap discovered Poe’s research project and decided that the city needed to get involved in pushing it out to its residents.

“From where I sit, in terms of our community development goals and helping citizens build wealth, everything we focus on from a professional perspective is dependent upon people being able to engage in a system that works for them,” says Dunlap. “When you bring up redlining, this is the systematic flaw that has impacted certain portions of the community. It’s a systematic default that stands in the way of our objectives.”

A major part of Redlining Louisville is a timeline of events throughout the city’s history that helps explain why the city remains one of the most segregated in the nation. It starts with the Louisville slave pens and then jumps to the 1914 residential segregation ordinance the city passed in response to African Americans arriving from the South in waves. That ordinance was supposedly enacted to “prevent conflict and ill-feeling between the white and colored races in the city of Louisville and to preserve the public peace….” What it created instead were residential pockets where black families were choked off from city services, quality schools, and jobs. In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Buchanan v. Warley declared Louisville’s segregation ordinance unconstitutional.

When the great urban planning wonder Harland Bartholomew came to Louisville to help draft the city’s first comprehensive plan, he struggled with what he called “The Negro Housing Problem in Louisville.” That was the name of his 1932 study, which stated that the problem wasn’t housing, but rather black people themselves. “If it were possible to create among the Negro masses a real desire for decent accommodations,” wrote Bartholomew, “the slums would automatically eliminate themselves.”

This was an interesting conclusion, given that the Buchanan v. Warley case was about an African-American man, William Warley, pursuing more desirable housing. Warley was challenging the fact that, due to the local segregation ordinance, he could not live in a house he paid for because it was in a predominantly white neighborhood. The Supreme Court ruling in this case dismissed the city’s argument that “ill-feelings” between the races was a valid reason for depriving individuals of their property rights. SCOTUS also rejected the city’s argument that bringing black families into white neighborhoods would depreciate property values.   

Warley won the case, but his victory was limited. Private restrictive covenants popped up in the segregation ordinance’s wake, allowing white homeowners associations to keep their neighborhoods white. Then the city of Louisville began clearing away the predominantly black neighborhood of Russell to replace it with housing projects.

Meanwhile, the federal government was gearing up to put redlining practices into overdrive. In 1933, the federal Homeowners Loan Corporation began playing a huge role in directing mortgage loans to mostly white families in danger of foreclosure. The HOLC’s real estate survey maps codified the redlining practices of the private real estate appraisal industry for determining where it would focus its investments. “Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the HOLC was its systematization of appraisal methods, amounting to a form of residential apartheid,” Redlining Louisville observes.

Decades later, elements of that system remained firmly in place. By the 1970s, Louisville Mayor Charles Farnsley stated on TV that the urban renewal impetus was to “drive the Negro from the central area” to prevent downtown from becoming a “black belt.” In 1975, after the U.S. Supreme Court approved busing for school desegregation, state police officers had to ride buses to ensure black students’ safety to and from home. Louisville later embraced desegregation, and has been one of the few cities to make serious attempts at school integration. But, as the mapping project demonstrates, segregation endures.

In an email, Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer stresses that Mapping Redlining is part of the city’s commitment to dismantling that legacy for good. “This map layers data, past and present, and illustrates clearly the opportunities that have been withheld from some of our citizens,” he writes. “As we explore the issues that this interactive map raises with the community, and as we hear about their experiences and thoughts, we’ll better understand the impact of redlining. And that will help us, as a city government, to find ways to remove the hurdles that are still keeping some from reaching their full human potential.”

Dunlap hopes that the project will particularly resonate with younger Louisville residents who need to understand why the city is the way it is. “People who lived through those decades often talk about how hard it was to get ahead, but they couldn’t articulate it beyond conspiracy theories what was actually going on,” she says. “When Joshua told me there there is actual documentation of this, I thought it would be a wonderful way for people to understand the experiences of disinvested areas—and why conventional market practices often don’t work in the areas where metro government spends a lot of time trying to revitalize.”

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