This post was written by geographer Quincy Langford.
My grandmother was a first generation homeowner in a Black middle class community called Alpha Gardens in the Southwick neighborhood of Louisville, Kentucky. My mother and her siblings grew up there, and I remember visiting my grandmother’s home as a child. But until I became a geographer, I did not understand the historical relevance of my mother’s childhood home.
In the early 1900s, the local government alongside private interests offered a program to Black residents with enough money and “good credit” to purchase homes in the area north of the railroad tracks that cut through the city. South of the railroad tracks, Black residents deemed unworthy of sufficient credit who could not afford the purchase price were redirected to public housing built by the city. This is not a new story. Like the majority of all major American cities, Louisville’s past is painted with a legacy of redlining, segregation, and urban renewal efforts that sought to keep Black people from gaining a foothold in a white society.
But as a geographer, I am trained to explore deeper questions about the physical and spatial makeup of communities. So I followed my questions about my grandmother’s home and what I already knew about urban renewal to the university archives to uncover what I could. I discovered through photos, documents – and most critically, maps – that prior to the rezoning and redevelopment of this neighborhood, a thriving community of 367 Black families lived on about 40 acres of land. The community was called Little Africa and it was a Black enclave that was completely gobbled up by an expanding city over time.
After the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, enslaved people who had been freed across the south moved further north in search of safety and opportunities. Many settled in Louisville. Little Africa was founded by Black tradespeople who built their own houses and maintained their own lands to grow their own vegetables. They built businesses, churches, and schools there over time. I even found in my research that when a hog was butchered by one family, for example, they shared it with families across the community. They created a solidarity economy. There was at least one barber and three thriving grocery stores in an area that is now commonly recognized as a food desert. Little Africa was a whole area where Black people did not have to travel outside their bounds to get what they needed; everything they needed was provided by their own, where they lived, and within walking distance.
Interest in the land grew over time, so urban renewal policies were developed and plans were made to rezone the area. City government and private developers cleared a total of 367 families from the community of Little Africa Black families had built by hand. They offered families $200 to purchase their homes. Of those families, 196 bought homes, 73 moved into rental quarters, 33 moved into public housing, 15 refused help, 15 bought substandard homes, and 35 left town or disappeared. Now they had debt, whereas before they had generations of property, wealth, and independence. Because Little Africa was a community of tradespeople, many were actually hired to deconstruct the houses themselves – property they had built and owned themselves now belonged to the government and was being razed to the ground. Some of the homes were literally burned down. Those who were relocated to other neighborhoods, both above and below the railroad line, paid taxes but didn’t receive services. There were no sidewalks or sewers. Some of their houses flooded with waste. Yet, they continued to care for one another even when the government would not.
As a geographer, I decided to map this physical space of 40 acres over time and space. Both those above and those below the railroad were still bound to the West End of the city. North and south of this section of the city were effectively rezoned as industrial space, so even the Black middle class people who could afford to purchase homes above the railroad faced home devaluation because of the industrial zoning that came alongside their mortgage. Using ArcGIS, I compiled several map base layers and combined them with zoning maps of the area. Viewing history through the lens of a map quickly illustrates the concrete ways injustice and inequities persist. The map I developed emphasizes the way industries completely wrap around these communities. When you put history on a map, you can see clearly what is otherwise unknown, ignored, or neglected – just as Little Africa and other communities just like it around the world have been.
Stories like what happened to the community of Little Africa are still happening today. People are displaced, reshuffled, and reorganized into already established neighborhoods, but it doesn’t solve the problem; it actually creates new ones. While historical geography may describe what happened in the past, our past is really a reflection of what could happen in the future if we do not take steps to rectify it. Geography is the first tool we can put to use to show how the past blends with the present and may impact the future.
Geography is interdisciplinary because we can garner a lot from a map. We can better understand history, politics, sociology, biology, and math. Maps can illustrate data beyond numbers, so we can actually see the physical reality and the projection of those numbers onto a map. Once we see the visual, reality hits and the story unfolds. Then we can do something about it. Maps help people better understand their physical space, so we can digest it visually, then think about it critically. Now that I have maps as tools for understanding about what happened to Little Africa, and how history touched not only my own family, but my community, I can put them to use. I can use these maps to honor the legacy of Little Africa and to ignite conversation in my community about how not to perpetuate similar violence now. Holding a map in our hand can be the difference between causing harm or rectifying it.
I believe there’s a map out there for everyone – one that could change your view or change your mind. And I hope each person finds – or creates – theirs; the world needs more people with maps in their hands.
Quincy Langford is a recent graduate of the University of Louisville with a BS in Geography. He will be continuing his education in Fall 2022 at the University of Louisville pursuing a joint degree program for a Masters in Urban Planning and a Masters in Sustainability. Quincy is fond of spending time in the archives reading personal narratives and examining historical geographies. His research interests include sustainable urban planning, walkable and bikeable cities, and green development. Quincy can be reached on Linkedin.
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The maps used in this post were created by Quincy Langford.