How to Spend a Weekend Exploring Black Heritage in Kentucky

For many people, traveling is a lot more than just sitting by the pool – it’s a chance to explore new territory, revisit history and make lasting connections with places both new and old. When I travel to a new place, I make a point to explore elements of Black history in those locations, whether it’s visiting important landmarks or tasting regional recipes that have been passed down over the years. 


Fortunately, Kentucky has many options for Black travelers to explore, covering the spectrum of the Black experience. History buffs, food fanatics, sports fans and adventure lovers have plenty of options in the Bluegrass state. But how to cover it all, especially when time is limited? We’ve put together a handy weekend guide to exploring Black heritage in Kentucky that hopefully will give you a sample of everything the state has to offer. 


Friday: Louisville to Lexington


Head over to The Muhammad Ali Center, a six-story, 24,000-square foot multicultural center and museum in Louisville dedicated both to the boxer’s extraordinary life and humanitarian work. You can see a variety of exhibits that explore both The Greatest’s upbringing in Louisville, his sporting success from around the globe and the post-fight benefit work that changed the lives of millions of people. 


Next, visit the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, which overlooks Old Walnut Street, a center for Black culture and business from the 1920s-1950s. With a collection of art installations, interactive exhibits and provocative work from visual and performing arts, the museum’s goal is to pay homage to Kentucky’s rich Black cultural history and look head-on at contemporary issues. 


Time to hit the road and head over to Lexington, where you can stop at the International Museum of the Horse. There, you can explore the Black Horsemen of the Kentucky Turf permanent exhibit, which explores the oft-forgotten contributions Black Americans made to a sport that means so much to the state. 


Check out Lexington native Martina Barksdale’s Sit-in and Savor IG page for recommendations for Black-owned restaurants in the city where you can finish off your first day with a solid meal.


Saturday: Lexington to Russellville


Time to hop in the car and get moving toward Mammoth Cave National Park. But if you have time – and make an appointment – you can stop along the way in Elizabethtown and visit the Emma Reno Connor Black History gallery. Located in an unassuming home, this detailed personal collection of pictures, newspaper stories, biographies, art and other memorabilia captures the lives of Black Americans over generations. A teacher, Connor collected these items because there was little to no information about Black people in her school textbooks. Her family continues her legacy by managing this museum. 


Mammoth Cave is the largest cave system in the world, with more than 420 miles of surveyed passageways. Many of the initial routes were scouted by enslaved people, including Stephen Bishop, who at 15 became one of the most daring and influential explorers in the field. He is one of several Black spelunkers who helped map the cave. Take a tour and learn about these guides, and if you’re lucky, you can meet Jerry Bransford, whose family legacy with the caves stretches back five generations. 


After exploring the caves, make your way to Russellville and stop by the life-size statue of Alice Allison Dunnigan before ending the day. Dunnigan, a native of the town, was a pioneering journalist and the first Black woman credentialed to cover the White House in 1947. 


Sunday: Russellville to Louisville


Start your last day by exploring the six buildings that comprise Russellville’s SEEK (Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky) Museum, a story that begins with the arrival of a Revolutionary War general and more than 100 enslaved people in 1817 and continues to this day. 


SEEK Museum in the Bottom is in the National Register Historic District where newly freed persons began building their lives post-Civil War. The four buildings feature exhibits that highlight the struggles and achievements of the Black people living there amid a world of segregation and discrimination and their fight for equality and justice. 


Make your way back to Louisville to wrap up your weekend of exploration. If you want to wind down with a nice walk, head over to the Riverfront Plaza/Belvedere and visit the statue of York, a guide who played a key role on the Lewis & Clark expedition, yet, like most enslaved people of the time, did not receive his just reward or freedom until later in life. 


With so much history and heritage found throughout the state, this is by no means a definitive weekend guide – take a look at the map and chart your own path to learn more about the contributions, culture and traditions of Black people in Kentucky.


Written by By Elliott Smith

January 17, 2022

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