Lesser-Known Black Heritage Site in Kentucky

By Nneya Richards


The state of Kentucky is rich in American heritage, with Black Americans settling the state alongside famed explorers like Daniel Boone. Black Americans in Kentucky were instrumental in Kentucky and the nation’s history, from settling the land to the Civil War (link to USCT and Camp Nelson)  to the Civil Rights movement. Culturally, African American Kentuckians monumentally contributed to blues music that shaped the American music scene as well as to one of Kentucky’s most famous attractions, the Kentucky Derby.  A vacation in Kentucky is rich with cultural experiences. Here are some lesser-known Black heritage sites in Kentucky that you should put on your radar.


The Kentucky Derby


When you think of Kentucky, you think of the Kentucky Derby. Did you know in the first 27 years of the Kentucky Derby, 15 of the winners of the Derby were African American? Then there wasn’t a Black jockey at the Derby from 1921 to around 2000. The Derby is intrinsically linked to the history of the US. Find out how at Kentucky Horse Park.  


The Kentucky Derby is arguably the most famous horse race in the world. The horseracing world is far too often whitewashed, and the major contributions of Black men and women often go overlooked or untold. From groomers and stable hands to celebrated jockeys, African Americans have contributed greatly to Kentucky’s horse industry. In fact, the first winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1875 was African-American jockey Oliver Lewis. Visit the Smithsonian-affiliated International Museum of the Horse at Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky, to explore the Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf permanent exhibit. Take pride in the stories of Derby greats like Isaac Murphy, the first jockey to win three Derbies and be inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame. Murphy was born into slavery, and his parents sought refuge at Camp Nelson with his father enlisting in the U.S. Colored Troops! 


For more on the Black Derby experience visit here.


Camp Nelson and the Ariel/Hall Community


One of the main recruiting and training locations for African Americans in the Civil War, Camp Nelson and later the Ariel/Hall Community tells the story of Black Kentuckians instrumental role in charting their own destinies and emancipation.


Kentucky’s Camp Nelson played a pivotal role in the Civil War as the nation’s third-largest recruitment center for African American soldiers, the U.S. Colored Troops. As the USCT were emancipated upon enlistment, many of these men and their families sought refuge and a better future at Camp Nelson, eventually creating a strongly self-sustaining community. In the aftermath of the war, many of these new citizens established the community of Ariel, which is now named Hall. Civil War history buffs can enjoy Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument in Nicholasville along with the history of Hall and this monument to Black self-determination in Kentucky.


The Metropolitan Hotel


Visit a renowned Green Book destination: The Metropolitan Hotel. Walk through the same halls that have welcomed Black luminaries like Tina Turner, Duke Ellington, Thurgood Marshall and more. 


In 1908, Maggie Steed opened The Hotel Metropolitan in Paducah, Kentucky. A Black woman-owned business welcoming Black travelers during the Jim Crow Era, the Hotel Metropolitan became a designated stop in the famed Green Book and a must-visit for Black entertainers on the Chitlin’ Circuit like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles and B.B. King. Currently owned by Betty Dobson, The Metropolitan Hotel now houses a museum telling the story of this safe haven and the Black community in Paducah and the city’s Uppertown neighborhood. At a time when not all locales were welcome to Black travelers and, even worse, dangerous during segregation, The Hotel Metropolitan offered a retreat, hospitality and dignity. Learn the stories of the Metropolitan Hotel in its heyday, along with Ms. Maggie’s Memories Guided Tour and authentic soul food tasting.


Kentucky and the Underground Railroad


At the top of the South, bordered by free states, Kentucky played a pivotal role in the Underground Railroad. Explore stories of the quest for freedom by African Americans in Kentucky in Oldham County and the National Underground Railroad Museum.


Bordered by the free states Ohio, Illinois and Indiana to the north, Kentucky was instrumental in both the Civil War and the anti-slavery Underground Railroad movement. Oldham County, Lexington and the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church and Nicholasville were important stops along the network, containing a treasure trove of Underground Railroad history, from abolitionists’ home bases to safe haven houses. The Bierbower House, which is home to the National Underground Railroad Museum in Maysville, Kentucky, is one of these documented safe houses. While there, stop by the birthplace cabin of Brigadier General Charles Young. One of the famed Buffalo Soldiers, Young was born into slavery in Mays Lick, Kentucky. Young went on to become one of the first African American graduates of West Point as well as the first Black superintendent of a national park.


While off of the beaten path, all of these destinations highlight the beautiful heritage of African Americans in the Bluegrass state.