Explore Kentucky's African American Heritage...Outdoors!

Being outdoors can be stillness, a reprieve from the everyday stresses of life, a mighty exhale. And when it comes to travel and seeing new places you’ve never seen before (or revisiting places that are familiar with new eyes), why not combine movement and activity with connecting with and learning more about African American history and heritage? 

The list that follows throughout Kentucky is not exhaustive but simply a launching pad for learning more about African American heritage while being outdoors. Let education and wonder be your guide. Open your eyes—and mind—to all that you can learn. 

Ora Porter historic marker

ShakeRag Historic District

Southern Kentucky is home to Bowling Green—and also a stomping ground for Black history that through the years has remained along with its legacy. Head to Bowling Green to the ShakeRag Historic District, a neighborhood that sits along Bowling Green’s North State Street. Nearly two decades ago ShakeRag Historic District was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, forever marking the impact that African Americans made in this neighborhood. 

To explore this heritage outdoors, there’s a few stops visitors can make. There’s, for instance, State Street Baptist Church. This church, also located on State Street, boasts the oldest Black congregation in Bowling Green having been organized in 1839. Take the church in from the street while peering at the George Washington Carver Center also nearby. The center is situated on the original Lee Square. 

Wrap up your time in the ShakeRag Historic District by wandering around the area near the World Peace Mural, situated on the back of the Fountain Square Players building. Artist Renda Writer created this massive mural painted with bright colors and the words love. Perfectly Instagram worthy, too. 

Louisville Downtown Civil Rights Markers Trail

Want a more thorough deep dive into the impact of African Americans in Kentucky? Look no further than the Civil Rights Markers Trail throughout the downtown area of Louisville. The US Civil Rights Trail is a network of historical markers and pivotal spots throughout the southeastern region of our country. The trail is more than simply just markers and must-see and must visit spots to visit throughout the South though; it is a chronicle of the Civil Rights Movement allowing those who walk along any portion of it to see how the Civil Rights Movement was led by Black people and led to so many freedoms Black people still embrace today. 

In downtown Louisville, specifically there are a series of historical markers that share the history of the freedom fighters who urged for an end to segregation due to racist Jim Crow laws. Walk these markers outdoors—situated throughout downtown in different spots. You can spot these markers as they are black with gold lettering. 

Whitney Young Birthplace

Whitney M. Young Birthplace 

A little-known civil rights hero, Whitney M. Young, Jr. undoubtedly left an indelible impact on his community in Simpsonville, Kentucky and the country at large. Born in 1921, while Whitney W. Young, Jr. was alive he fought ardently for the end to employment discrimination. His will to make it easier for Black people to gainfully become employed (and to keep said employment) led to him becoming one of the esteemed leaders of the National Urban League, an organization that continues on in its civil rights and urban advocacy endeavors today. 

Visitors to Simpsonville can take in the home that Whitney M. Young, Jr. was born. The home is modest and cream-colored with two levels. When he died in 1971, the birthplace was transformed into a museum and intended to be a learning center. Visitors can take in tidbits of his life through photography and information about periods of his life. You can find the home on the campus of the Whitney M. Jones, Jr. Job Corps Center. 
 

African American Men Reinactors at Camp Nelson in Military uniform

Camp Nelson 

Formerly a recruitment and training center for Black soldiers during the American Civil War, the area where Camp Nelson formerly stood still houses that history today. Nicholasville, Kentucky is where Camp Nelson is located, and the area today is designated a National Monument and overseen by the National Park Service. There’s lots to explore at Camp Nelson, the majority of which is outdoors making it a perfect stop for combining spending time in nature with learning more about history that is essential to Black Kentuckians. 

Camp Nelson itself is expansive and inclusive of many different components: a Visitor Center and Museum, walking trails, the Camp Nelson National Cemetery, Hall Community, reconstructed army barracks and the Oliver Perry House. All parts of Camp Nelson are story building; visitors are to learn about the more than 10,000 Black men who were formerly enslaved but became soldiers during the Civil War. 

Alice Allison Dunnigan Statue with African American friend group standing around it

Alice Allison Dunnigan Statue 

For yet another outdoor destination considered to be a historical treasure, head to Russellville, Kentucky to learn more about mighty woman Alice Allison Dunnigan. When Alice was alive, she became a fierce civil rights advocate, using her words to speak out against injustice and highlight the wrongs happening around her. She was a journalist and author and the first Black woman to ever receive White House credentials. But that wasn’t the only first that Alice ushered forth: she was the first Black woman to become a member of the Senate and House of Representatives press galleries. 

The statue that memorializes her in Russellville is bronze and depicts her in a hat, a dress and what appears to be a folded up newspaper. Her statute is strategically placed in front of the SEEK Museum in her hometown of Russellville, where you can visit to find more information about her life, the Civil Rights Movement and the history of African Americans in Kentucky. 

Written by Nneka Okona
January 17, 2022