Famous Black Kentuckians

 

Louisville skyline at night

Most people are familiar with some of Kentucky’s well-known African Americans, the most famous of which is arguably Muhammed Ali, who hails from Louisville.  But there are numerous others who played significant roles in every area of the educational, political, artistic, social, and other landscapes all over the Bluegrass State.

Following are a few notables to ponder as you enjoy all that Kentucky has to offer.

Allen Allensworth 
Born in Louisville in 1842, Allen Allensworth was destined for greatness.  

As a young man he marched alongside Union soldiers in the 44th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment and served as a civilian nursing aide for the Hospital Corps, followed by two-years in the U.S. Navy.  He also served as a Clerk and Captain’s Steward on two gunboats against Confederate forces.

In his mid-20s Allensworth attended the Ely Normal School, became an educator at several Freedman’s Bureau schools, and studied theology.  Ordained as a Baptist preacher in 1871, he was pastor of Centennial Baptist Church (originally named Harney Street Baptist Church) and served on Kentucky’s General Association of the Colored Baptists.

In 1880 and 1884 Allensworth was Kentucky’s only black delegate to the Republican National Convention.  In 1886 he returned to military service as one of the few black chaplains in the U.S. Army and eventually became the first African American to reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, a position he held until his retirement in 1906.

Allensworth passed away in 1914.

Frank L. Stanley Sr. 
Frank L. Stanley Sr. (1905 or 1906 - 1974, historical accounts differ on his birth date) came to Louisville as a small child, making an indelible mark in publishing and other fields.

His journalism career started at Central High School (formally known as Louisville Central High School Magnet Career Academy) where he eventually headed the English department.  

A staunch advocate for military desegregation in Europe, civil rights, fair housing, higher education, and economic development, he crusaded for these concerns as a reporter for the Louisville Defender, later becoming the general manager, senior editor, and for nearly 40 years, its publisher.

Stanley was co-founder of the National Newspaper Publishers Association and was sponsored by the U.S. State Department to conduct journalism seminars in Africa.  He also garnered over 35 national journalism awards and played an integral role in the establishment of the Kentucky Human Rights Commission, among numerous other achievements. 

In 1983, Stanley was posthumously inducted into the Journalism Hall of Fame at the University of Kentucky, and The Frank L. Stanley Papers are on display at the University of Louisville Libraries' Special Collections and Archives.

Moneta J. Sleet Jr. 
Born in Owensboro in 1926, Moneta J. Sleet Jr. became one of the greatest photographers of our time.

Sleet attended Western High School, graduated from Kentucky State University, and earned a master’s degree in journalism at New York University.

Turning to photojournalism, Sleet worked for several prominent African American publications including Jet Magazine, the Amsterdam News, and Ebony Magazine.  Known for capturing the full spectrum of the black American experience, Sleet  also traveled and photographed throughout Africa during the 1950s.

His most iconic images include those of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, and the historic 1965 march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, AL.  In 1968, Sleet won a Pulitzer Prize.

Exterior of Owensboro Museum of Art

His work has been featured in the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and he’s been honored by the National Association of Black Journalists, the Overseas Press Club of America, and the National Urban League. 

One of Owensboro’s favorite sons, Sleet’s accomplishments are also noted at Historical Marker #2036.  

He passed away in 1996.

For Ladies Only!
Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, Rosa Parks, Vernice Armour, Angela Davis, and Ella Baker are just a few of the women whose lives and groundbreaking work played an integral role in the development of this country.  Whether fighting for gender equality, freedom, self-empowerment, or in our armed forces, these women have courageously and significantly graced every aspect of our landscape since the founding of our country.

In Kentucky, we celebrate an exceptional roster of black women and their achievements that have individually and collectively made an indelible mark in the Bluegrass State and beyond.

Mae Street Kidd 
Mae Street Kidd was born in Millersburg in 1904.  After attending several segregated schools she enrolled at the Lincoln Institute, a boarding school for Black students. 

During World War II, Kidd served in England with the Red Cross, had a long career with the Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance Company, and worked tirelessly in the Civil Rights Movement.  Her activism and civic leadership led her to the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1968 to 1984, and she became the first woman elected secretary of the Democratic caucus.

Kidd was also instrumental in introducing legislation for the Kentucky Fair Housing Act, enacting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a state holiday, and ensuring the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to U.S. Constitution.

In 1948 Kidd was credited with organizing Louisville’s first Urban League Guild which supported the National Urban League, and she was awarded the prestigious NAACP Unsung Heroine Award.

Historical Marker #2147 in Millersburg celebrates her life and legacy, and after her death in 1999 she was interred at Zachary Taylor National Cemetery in Louisville.

Bertha Whedbee 
Born in West Virginia in 1879, Bertha Whedbee lived most of her life in Louisville and became a Kindergarten teacher through training from Louisville’s Colored Kindergarten Association in 1901.

In 1922, after her teenage son was mistreated by the police, and in an effort to help change the way blacks were treated under the law, she petitioned for and became Louisville’s first African American policewoman — this merely two years after women earned the right to vote and well before the Civil Rights Movement.

Whedbee was also heavily involved in ensuring that blacks received fair and adequate healthcare, working for many years with the Ladies Medical Aid, the National Medical and Dental Association, The Red Cross Hospital, and the Bluegrass State Medical Society.

A longtime contributor to the Urban League and service on the Board of the Phillis Wheatley YWCA, Whedbee died in 1960.

Suzan-Lori Parks 
Born in Fort Knox in 1963, Suzan-Lori Parks is one of the most prolific playwrights in America today.  

Not long after attending Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, Parks began garnering critical acclaim with Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1989), followed by a long string of highly successful works.  She also created one of the largest grassroots collaborations in theater history—her project 365 Days/365 Plays—which was ultimately produced in over 700 theaters worldwide.

In 2002 for her work Topdog/Underdog, Parks became the first African American woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and in 2012 was honored with a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, and Unchain My Heart: The Ray Charles Musical, are among her most notable works.

Parks has been named among Time magazine’s “100 Innovators for the Next Wave” and is the recipient of numerous prestigious artistic endowments and grants.
 

Written by By Lysa Allman-Baldwin
January 17, 2022