Rediscovering Local Legends: Louisville’s First Black Council Members

Local government leaders hardly ever garner the attention or acclaim held by federal or even state government leaders. The level of government that is closest to the people and whose decisions tend to have the most immediate impact on the community is frequently underappreciated. I got my start in politics as a sophomore in high school working as an intern for the former Mayor of Florence, Kentucky, Diane Whalen. I now work part-time as a legislative assistant for Louisville Metro Councilman Khalil Batshon after starting as an intern and then serving as a staff assistant for Louisville Metro Councilman Anthony Piagentini. I have seen first hand how dedicated all of these local leaders are in service of their community – often serving as elected officials on top of having other jobs and responsibilities.

Last year I wrote an article for the Louisville Political Review’s Black History Month Series detailing the lives and legacies of the first Black United States Congressmen. The records of these inspirational leaders were plentiful and accessible. However, when I decided to tell the stories of the first Black Louisville council members, I found little available information online outside of the fact that they existed. After hours of combing through the records of the Louisville Board of Aldermen (the predecessor council of the Louisville Metro Council) in the Louisville Metro Archives Building, I was able to rediscover the great lives and accomplishments of Eugene S. Clayton, Louisville’s first Black Alderman, and Louise Reynolds, Louisville’s first Black Alderwoman. 

Alderman Eugene S. Clayton

Eugene Scott Clayton was born in August of 1895 in Louisville. He started working for Louisville’s Radiator and Standard Sanitary Corporation as a teenager. The company manufactured heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, as well as plumbing fixtures and automotive parts. Clayton went on to become a foreman for the company, meaning he was responsible for organizing and supervising the front-line manufacturing workers. This was a very rare and prestigious position for a Black man to hold in the era of Jim Crow. Clayton would hold this job throughout his time of public service and up until his retirement in 1958.

In 1945, Clayton was elected as a Republican member of the Louisville Board of Aldermen, representing the 10th Ward (or district) in the predominantly Black West End of Louisville. In an election where over 90,000 people voted, Clayton narrowly beat his Democratic opponent by just 145 votes. His victory was championed by national Republicans as an indicator of racial progress and Grand Old Party support among African Americans. Clayton’s election was not only significant for the city of Louisville and national Republicans, but the entire South, as he was the first Black person to be elected to any city government in the South since Reconstruction.

 As Alderman, Clayton was an advocate for proper city utilities and environmental protection. In 1946, he authored a unanimously passed resolution advocating for federal aid for projects such as the construction of city sewers and sewage disposal systems. He also sat on a special board committee to consider court proceedings against chemical manufacturing plants in the West End. The Rubbertown area of West Louisville hosted several of these chemical plants that aided in the production of synthetic rubber – hence the name “Rubbertown.” These plants were subject to investigation for lawsuits by Clayton and the Board of Aldermen due to the dust and obnoxious gasses emitted from the facilities, which brought significant health risks to the residents of the West End. Following the committee’s findings of communal harm and negligence, Clayton proposed a unanimously adopted resolution authorizing and directing the Louisville Director of Law to institute court proceedings to abate the nuisance of community health issues caused by these plants.

Clayton went on to become chairman of the Board Aldermen’s Health Committee in 1947. He was tasked with investigating issues with smoke and gas originating from fires in the East End garbage dumps. Unfortunately, Clayton lost his bid for re-election and was limited to one two-year term.

In just one term, Clayton made strides in addressing the issues of pollution and utilities. However, one thing that I found to be glaringly absent from Clayton’s record was advocacy for civil rights. Clayton was a Black leader during a time of racial segregation in most Louisville accommodations, such as restaurants, restrooms, housing, and schools. Why didn’t he at least try to take action through the Board of Aldermen to secure greater civil rights protections for Black Louisvillians? It’s difficult to say based on the limited records available on Clayton. Maybe it wasn’t a priority of his. Or it could be because he didn’t want to alienate himself any further from the rest of the white Board of Aldermen. Either way, Clayton was the first Black man that successfully sought to faithfully serve as an elected official in Louisville’s local government, which deserves to be celebrated.

Alderwoman Louise Reynolds

Louise Reynolds was born in Lewisburg, Tennessee and moved to Louisville at a young age with her family in 1928. She was a graduate of Louisville Central High School, Louisville Municipal College, and the University of Louisville. Reynolds worked in Louisville real estate and served as President of the Real Estate Brokers Association. In 1952, she began her political career serving as secretary to Congressman John M. Robsion, making her the first Black Kentuckian woman to serve in this position.

In 1961, Reynolds was elected to serve the 10th Ward of the Board of Aldermen as a Republican. In her first election, she defeated her opponent by over 8,000 votes in an alderman race where nearly 110,000 ballots were cast. She served as alderwoman from 1961 to 1969 for a total of four terms.

During her tenure as alderwoman, Reynolds was a passionate advocate for civil rights. Her most notable achievement is her successful leadership of the charge to pass the Louisville Public Accommodations Ordinance. Reynolds and the Board of Aldermen passed the Public Accommodations Ordinance in 1963, banning discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin in public accommodations (restaurants, stores, hotels, etc.). This ordinance was the first of its kind in the South, and it came right before the passage of the federal Civil Rights of 1964, which prohibited public accommodations discrimination, employment discrimination, and provided for better racial integration of public schools.

Alderwoman Reynolds also aided in making history for positions outside of the Board of Aldermen in the Louisville government. Reynolds believed in the importance of Black representation in local government. Reynolds and the Board of Aldermen confirmed the first Black woman to serve on the Louisville Water Company, as well as the first Black man to serve as a Louisville Police Major.

Reynolds received national recognition in 1965 when she served as mayor of Louisville for several days in the absences of Mayor William Cowger and Board of Aldermen President Kenneth Schmied. While this brief stint as mayor seems minor, it actually marked a historic first for the South: the first Black woman to serve as mayor of a southern city. Her advocacy for civil rights and national publicity earned her an invitation to the White House for dinner with President Lyndon B. Johnson. She later retired from politics to handle minority affairs for the Louisville Small Business Administration.

Reflections on Black History Month and Local Leadership

The Louisville Board of Aldermen was dissolved in 2003 upon the Louisville City Government’s merger with the government of Jefferson County to form the Louisville Metro Government. The Louisville Metro Council succeeded the Board of Aldermen as the local legislative branch. The Louisville Metro Council is composed of 26 council members, each representing a different area of Jefferson County. I was recently able to speak with two of the current five Black council members, Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin and Councilman Jecorey Arthur.

Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin has served on the Louisville Metro Council since the 2003 merger. Shanklin represents Metro Council District 2, encompassing the Newburg, Norfolk, Poplar Hills, and Buchel neighborhoods of Louisville. She made history herself when she served as the first Black President of the Metro Council in 2005. Here are her reflections of Black History Month, Aldermen Clayton and Reynolds, and local leadership:

Alex Reynolds (AR): What does Black History Month mean to you? How can we better celebrate the lives and achievements of public servants like Council members Clayton and Reynolds?

Councilwoman Shanklin (CWS): “Black History Month is an important time for all of us to be able to stand back and reflect upon the important achievements of Black leaders of both our past and present.  Oftentimes, education about these leaders and the progress they were able to achieve is not touched on in a typical history class, or is so briefly mentioned that the information does not resonate.  With special events such as the Council’s Black History Program during Black History Month, as well as smaller ceremonies throughout the year (such as honorary street sign installations, commemorations of significant dates/birthdays, etc.) we can better keep the lives of trailblazing African-Americans in our community’s collective consciousness all year long. Ultimately, as public servants, we can best celebrate the lives and achievements of public servants like Councilmembers Clayton and Reynolds by continuing to push for legislation that will move our community forward in a positive direction.”

 AR: What is the importance of local government in bringing about positive change in the community?

CWS: “Local government is oftentimes where innovative and progressive legislation is first considered, experimented with, and implemented on a smaller-level scale before it is even introduced in higher-level legislative bodies.  Local government responds directly to the people that are being represented.  We, as Councilmembers, are literally your neighbors and experience many of the same concerns, annoyances, challenges, and joys of living in this community as you do.  The most direct way we can attempt to tackle our challenges and celebrate our achievements is through local government.”

AR: Also–I think it’s important to note that you were the first African American to serve as President of Metro Council. Thank you for all your years of public service. Any reflections you want to share on this?

CWS: “Being the first African-American President of the Metro Council was an honor and quite rewarding—though not without its challenges.  Not everyone at the time was happy to serve “under” an African-American woman, so sometimes it was challenging navigating the social and political aspect of being President.  However, I did not let anything stand in my way as I strived to make sure all of the people in our city were considered and represented by their Council.  In fact, it was when I was the President of the Council that I, and my office, first held the Metro Council Black History Program (coming up this year on February 23!) which honors an African-American community member from each of our 26 Council districts that made a positive impact on the community.  I have kept this program going as an annual tradition for over 20 years now–and many community members that might have been unrecognized otherwise have been celebrated every February since I was Metro Council President.”

Councilman Jecorey Arthur was elected to the Louisville Metro Council in 2020. Arthur represents Metro Council District 4, which includes the neighborhoods of Butchertown, Clifton Heights, Downtown, Old Louisville, and East Market District (NuLu) among other areas. He is also a history-maker, as he was elected the youngest member of the Louisville Metro Council in city history. Here are his reflections of Black History Month, Aldermen Clayton and Reynolds, and local leadership:

AR: What does Black History Month mean to you?

Councilman Arthur (CMA): Black History Month is a reminder of American heroes. If it weren’t for Black Americans like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, and so many others we wouldn’t be the nation we are today. We should remember their contributions but also be inspired to continue their work.

AR: How can we better celebrate the lives and achievements of public servants like Council members Clayton and Reynolds?

CMA: The best way to celebrate them is to let them live through us. We have to keep addressing [the] climate like Councilman Clayton did. We have to keep addressing discrimination like Councilwoman Reynolds did. No single council member can solve centuries of oppression during their term(s). But every councilmember should use their time here to make progress as much as they can until the next citizen steps up to represent.

AR: What is the importance of local government in bringing about positive change in the community?

CMA: People need housing, food, and other basics to live. All levels of government should be making sure those basic needs are met, but local government is closer to the people, so we should be closer to the solutions.

Our local leaders are pioneers in public policy who tend to hold a deep understanding of the people and issues of their community. These leaders are almost always focused on the needs of their constituents at the time, but they can make local history in the process. Black history continues to be made, as seen through our Black local leaders. Whether it’s in our classrooms or council chambers, the lives and work of local leaders like Eugene S. Clayton and Louise Reynolds deserve to be celebrated and honored by the city of Louisville.

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