Along the Civil Rights Trail

Berea, Simpsonville, Russellville, and Louisville are home to some of the over 120 significant historic sites and landmarks to date dotted along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail. 


At the sites in each of these four cities—in addition to numerous others not officially designated as part of the Trail—scores of courageous individuals and organizations stepped to the forefront to foster extraordinary change, equality, and social justice for African Americans.




Social activism and equal rights date all the way back to the mid-to-late 1800s in Berea, as it was here that Berea College was founded. The institution is significant in many ways, most notably as the South’s first interracial and coeducational college.  In 1897 Carter G. Woodson enrolled as a student here, graduating in 1903 and later becoming one of America’s premier journalists, authors, and historians.  He is also known as the father of Black History Month.


About a year later, students, administrators, and staff worked tirelessly against a new “Day Law” prohibiting private institutions from offering interracial education.  By the 1960s when the Civil Rights Movement was in full-force, politically centered student engagement remained at a high level.  In addition to establishing a Black Student Union, they led protest rallies to Frankfort, Kentucky’s capital, staged sit-ins, and traveled to Selma, AL in solidarity with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the historic march along the Edmund Pettis Bridge to the state capital in Montgomery.


The second oldest permanent structure on Berea’s campus is Lincoln Hall, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark, and also the site of The Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education.




Although the March on Washington is the most well-known marches of the Civil Rights Movement, there were many others across the country that led to significant changes in our country.  One of them occurred in Frankfort.


On March 5, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Frank Stanley Jr., editor and publisher of the Louisville Defender newspaper, future State Senator Georgia Davis Powers, activist Rev. Ralph Abernathy, baseball legend Jackie Robinson, and other organizers and celebrities led over 10,000 Kentuckians on a peaceful protest to the capitol. Their objective was to demand that legislation be passed ending segregation and discrimination in areas of public accommodation - hotels, restaurants, restrooms, theaters, shops, and the like. A secondary but no less important action that day designed to place immense pressure on lawmakers to pass the bill was a hunger strike staged in the gallery of the House of Representatives.


Although neither action resulted in passing of the bill, these landmark events nevertheless carried tremendous influence in the national Civil Rights Movement cause.  A mere four months later, the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was signed.  In 1966, the very wide-reaching Kentucky Civil Rights Act passed, and two years later fair housing laws were adopted throughout the state.




Kentuckians are immensely proud to say that Civil Rights icon Whitney M. Young is one of their native sons.  His life and legacy are remembered and celebrated at the Whitney M. Young Birthplace in Simpsonville.


Located on the site of the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Job Corps Center (originally the Lincoln Institute), this unique National Historic Landmark is comprised of two different entities.  The Interpretative Center is the two-story birthplace where Young lived until age 15.  His early childhood, career, and rise to prominence in the Civil Rights Movement comprise the inspirational exhibits here.  


Founded as a prominent boarding school for African American high school students, today’s Lincoln Institute Alumni Center is where Young graduated with valedictorian honors in 1937. An interesting note is that his father also spent nearly 50 years here as a student and in leadership roles.




Spanning over 150 years of history dating back to the Civil War, the SEEK MUSEUM is an important part of the Civil Rights Movement story.


Located in Russellville, the entity is a distinctive assemblance of six beautifully restored historic buildings featuring a wealth of exhibits, artifacts, memorabilia, and other elements relative to slavery, segregation, civil rights, and other important issues in the African American experience.


For over 40 years, Russellville native Alice Allison Dunnigan played a significant role in the national Civil Rights Movement landscape.  As a child growing up in the early 1900s, she possessed a natural writing ability that she transformed into a career as a journalist, and at a time when women were not common, nor permitted, in that role.


Her remarkable story does not stop there. Dunnigan went on to become a teacher, widely regarded black newspaper columnist, member of the Congressional, Supreme Court, and White House press corps, and an appointee to President Harry S. Truman’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.


Dunnigan is celebrated here with Kentucky Historical Marker #1960, a beautiful bronze statue outside of the SEEK MUSEUM, as well as through an exhibit inside.




Opened to the public in 2013, the Louisville Downtown Civil Rights Trail encompasses 11 historical markers created by renowned African American sculptor and Kentucky native Ed Hamilton. Located all over the downtown area, they denote where, during the 1950s and 60s, sit-in demonstrations took place to protest the denial or mistreatment of blacks in places like department stores, office buildings, restaurants, theaters, and hotels, among other locations.


Together they illuminate, for locals and travelers alike, the pioneering responsibilities assumed by numerous African Americans in the pursuit of the end of segregation and racial discrimination in Louisville. 


On the University of Louisville Belknap Campus, you’ll find Charles H. Parrish, Jr. Freedom Park. Here a series of 10 black granite pillars educated visitors about Louisville history from 1750 to the present day.  


One of the pillars, entitled The Civil Rights Movement (1940-1970), sheds light on the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling, formation of the University of Louisville’s Black Student Union, the Interracial Hospital Movement in the city, and adoption of a fair housing ordinance, among other momentous actions during this time.


Accompanying the pillars are glass panels graced with the faces of nine Louisville Civil Rights Movement legends, including the park’s namesake, Dr. Charles Henry Parrish, Jr., the first African American faculty member of an historically white university in the south (the University of Louisville). Other personalities include Civil Rights leader and journalist Anne M. Braden; attorney and former Kentucky Lieutenant Governor and Louisville mayor, Wilson W. Wyatt, Sr.; and professor and co-founder of the University of Louisville’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Dr. Lucy Freibert, just to name a few.



Written by By Lysa Allman-Baldwin

January 17, 2022