Maps Are a Tool to Understand the Past—and Shape the Future

Geographer Quincy Langford wrote this post.

My grandmother was a first-generation homeowner in the middle-class Black community of 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 that home’s historical significance.

In the early 1900s, the local government, alongside private interests, offered Black residents who had enough money and “good credit” an opportunity 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 most 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.

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 the wrongs of prior eras.

Quincy Langford

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, along with what I already knew about urban renewal, to the university archives. I wanted to see what I could uncover there. Through photos, documents, and, most critically, maps, I discovered that prior to the rezoning and redevelopment of my mother’s childhood 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 an expanding city completely gobbled up over time.

Little Africa, Louisville, Kentucky (Quincy Langford)

After the Emancipation Proclamation, formerly enslaved people across the south moved 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, which Black families had built by hand. They offered families $200 for their homes. Of those families, 196 bought new 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. Property they had built and owned themselves now belonged to the government and was being razed. 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.

Quincy’s thesis map illustrates current land use in Little Africa and surrounding neighborhoods. (Quincy Langford)

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 bound to the West End of the city. The area north and south of this section of the city was effectively rezoned as industrial space, so even the middle-class Black people who could afford to purchase homes above the railroad faced home devaluation because of the industrial zoning that came with 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 illustrates the concrete ways injustice and inequity 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, like Little Africa and similar communities around the world have been.

Stories like what happened to the community of Little Africa are still playing out 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 the wrongs of prior eras. 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 what happened to Little Africa and how history touched not only my own family but also 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 and undoing it.

I believe there’s a map out there for everyone, including for you: one that could change your view or your mind. And I hope each person finds, or creates, theirs. The world needs more people with maps in their hands.

This post is a refreshed version of one originally published in December 2021.

When confronted with any issue, geographers ask three important questions: Where is it? Why is it there? And, why do we care? Enroll in our free, self-paced course “Applying Geographic Thinking Skills with Your Learners” to learn how to bring geographic thinking to your instruction.

Quincy Langford is a recent graduate of the University of Louisville with a B.S. in geography. He will be continuing his education in fall 2022 at the University of Louisville, pursuing a joint degree program for a master’s in urban planning and a master’s 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.

Featured image by Quincy Langford

2 thoughts on “Maps Are a Tool to Understand the Past—and Shape the Future

  1. Read your article with great interest. First, as over 30 years of experience what has disappeared in too many classrooms are posted “paper” maps – pull down maps that are a constant in the eyes of our children. Yes, we quickly bring them up on our smart boards but they just as quickly disappear. When making connection to their space on this earth discovered that personal maps of their “place” begins that journey and provides such great insight into the life of your students. The first time I drew my own I learned a great deal about myself. Thanks for sharing your experiences

  2. Hello Quincy Langford, I’m Emmanuel and a recent graduate of Geography Education. I will like to work with you. Please call me +2348147918825.

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