Remembering the Atlanta Spa Shootings

Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33, Daoyou Feng, 44, Xiaojie Tan, 49, Hyun Jung Grant, 51, Paul Andre Michels, 54, Yong Ae Yue, 63, Suncha Kim, 69, and Soon Chung Park, 74 all lost their lives from the Atlanta Spa shootings. This article will commemorate the lives that were tragically taken last year and reach talks of gun restriction amidst the trend of mass shootings in the United States.

Context  

On March 16, 2021, the United States experienced yet another hate crime incited by a white man, Robert Aaron Long. Six of the eight victims above were Asian women.  

This shooting was not an isolated incident. It was not a mere coincidence that the victims of this attack were Asian. This attack was a part of a series of anti-Asian and Pacific Islander shootings and hate crimes. There were two shootings, both of which took place in the Atlanta area and on the same day. The first shooting occurred at Young’s Asian Massage near Acworth, Georgia. Robert Aaron Long went to the bathroom of that parlor. When he came back, gunshots were fired, killing two and critically wounding three (two of which would later die).  

Elcias Hernandez-Ortiz, the only survivor of this attack, recounted that tragic day, “When I heard the first few shots rang out, I opened the door of the room and when I saw him face-to-face, I threw myself on the floor and asked him not to shoot me. He told me to look up at him and when I looked up at him, that’s when he shot me in the face.  

The murderer did not stop there. 

Shortly after the events unfolded in Acworth, there was a robbery at Gold Massage Spa in northeast Atlanta, nearly 30 miles from the previous incident. Three women died from gunshot wounds at this location. Others who were in a break room were shot at but survived. And across the street, another victim lost their life.  

When Robert Long was apprehended by law enforcement, Captain Jay Baker told the media that “He (Long) apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate”. Long reduced the lives of those Asian women to nothing more than a temptation that needed to be eradicated. It is clear that his actions were racially motivated. 

Sexualized Racism 

Annie King, an active student at the University of Louisville and a member of the Asian Pacific Student Union stated that the moment the words ‘sex’ and ‘Asian woman’” appeared in article headings, those mothers, grandmothers, human beings lost to a gunman, ceased to be human. They instead became expendable and invisible “lotus blossoms”. King explored the idea that this act of violence was fueled by sexualized racism rather than a racial agenda targeting a specific group of individuals. What the killer said proved this. He stated that “I am going to kill all Asians,” “It was to alleviate my sex addiction,” or “It had nothing to do with race”.  

Lily Stewart, the secretary of the Asian Pacific Student Union at UofL stated that “Hyper-sexualized tropes inflicted upon Asian women, both consciously and subconsciously, ultimately delineate us expendable . . . For Asian American women, race is always gendered, and gender is always racialized. Together, they synergize to perpetuate racially gendered oppression and violence pervasive our livelihoods and identities.” It is no secret that this problem goes unnoticed in America. This terroristic act that was incited by Long further proves it. His motive is clear. 

Hate Crime Toward Minorities in America is Nothing New 

The great civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”. Part of being a humanitarian is the moral obligation to stand up against injustice. And I believe that as human beings, we are all humanitarians and must not turn a blind eye toward injustice as our predecessors have in the past. 

I could host a lecture that would list all of the injustices that white America has done to minorities living in this country. The red summer of 1919  saw a rise of white supremacy and terrorism against Black people in the United States with hundreds dying and thousands of families left destabilized and disenfranchised for generations to come. The 1921 Tulsa Massacre is another example of white supremacist violence, where more than a thousand lives, homes, and Black businesses were burned to the ground. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 passed by Congress implemented a 10-year ban on Chinese workers who sought to immigrate to the U.S., higher restrictions on those who were already living in the U.S. by refusing to grant them citizenship, and even U.S. citizens of Chinese descent could face deportation. Even when the act expired after 10 years, Congress extended this injustice by passing the Geary Act in 1902, which added extra requirements for Chinese residents to register and obtain certificates of residence  — something that immigrants from Europe did not have to do. 

Perhaps the gravest injustice that the American government has committed against the Asian American community would be the so-called internment camps of the Second World War. As America was fighting Japan in the Pacific theater, distrust and animosity grew toward people of Japanese descent and Asians in general on the west coast of the U.S. American officials believed that there were spies living among the population. To combat this, the American government had a provision in the executive order which would require Japanese-Americans to renounce their allegiance to their homeland and the Japanese emperor.  

This was met with swift opposition as many felt that they were disrespected by the U.S. government and even demanded to be willingly deported back to Japan.  To protect the “interests of the public,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued executive order 9066 mandating the transfer of any person of Japanese descent on the West Coast to internment camps. In these concentration camps, people lived in tight cell blocks, faced inhumane conditions, and were often not fed. This abuse of human rights would be challenged in the infamous court case, Korematsu v. United States. The Supreme Court of the United States, supposedly the last resort for a remedy against constitutional implications, ruled against Korematsu and sustained the internment of every Japanese-American in those camps. It would not be until 2017, that the court officially overruled Korematsu in Trump v. Hawaii

This indicates that historical injustices against the Asian community and other minority groups in America sometimes go unacknowledged until years later as a way of making up for “past sins.” This is a recurring topic throughout recent history. Isn’t it past time for a paradigm shift? Aren’t we sick of witnessing injustice go unpunished simply because a particular conduct was “technically legal”? 

Gun Control  

The Atlanta spa shooter legally purchased a handgun and ammunition at a local firearm store in Georgia. Like many southern states, Georgia does not have a waiting period to use a gun, nor is an individual required to have a license to possess a firearm in the state. Because the killer passed the background check, within minutes he was able to use that gun per Georgia’s law.  

Is it time to begin implementing stricter gun control measures into American policies? How many lives must be taken before the state legislatures and the American Congress create meaningful legislation to end racially motivated gun violence? I am not advocating to strip you of your constitutional liberty to bear arms. I am arguing for stronger gun regulations in areas that have high concentrations of gun violence which result in mass shootings. The Pew Research Center surveyed U.S. adults on gun restrictions and the results were that the share of Americans who say gun laws in the U.S. should be made stricter has increased from 52% in 2017 to 60% in 2019. And those who believe that gun laws should be less restricted dropped from 18% in 2017 to 11% two years later. Improving gun laws in America could be the deciding factor in whether a student at your local high school comes back home safe or they become another statistic of students who died in school shootings because people have relatively easy access to guns.  

APSU and the LPR 

On behalf of the Louisville Political Review, I would like to thank my peers at the University of Louisville’s Asian Pacific Student Union for their collaborative efforts that were put into this article.  

The Asian Pacific Student Union strives to give AAPI students a strong campus presence and sense of community by celebrating cultural identities while advocating and educating on AAPI-related issues. The members of APSU planned this candlelight vigil to honor the lives of those lost to anti-AAPI hate crimes and to educate the UofL community on these social justice issues that often go unnoticed. 

I am honored to have been invited to be a part of such an event. I was moved by the compassion that was on display that night from the audience to all the speakers and it has compelled me to write this article in honor of all the lives that were tragically taken last year in Atlanta. Before I conclude, I will list all of the victims that lost their lives on that devastating day one last time.  

Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33 | Daoyou Feng, 44 | Xiaojie Tan, 49 | Hyun Jung Grant, 51 | Paul Andre Michels, 54 | Yong Ae Yue, 63 | Suncha Kim, 69 | Soon Chung Park, 74 

The Western Branch Library: a Beacon of Hope for Louisville’s Black Community

“The library does more than furnish facts and circulate books…the people feel that the library belongs to them, and that it may be used for anything that makes for their welfare.”

 -Rev. Thomas Fountain Blue, the Western Branch’s first librarian

For centuries, libraries have served as a space for self-enlightenment, a place where people can cultivate thought and ideas and share this in community with others. There was a time, however, when this access to knowledge was not attainable to everyone. Despite the 13th and 14th amendments granting Black Americans freedom following the Civil War, opportunities for Black self-enlightenment were slim to none during this time period, especially in Kentucky.

In 1905, a beacon of hope for Black thought and ideas was established in Louisville. Sitting just a block west of the 9th Street Divide on Chestnut Street, the Louisville Western Branch Library was the first library in the country to exclusively serve and be fully operated by Black Louisvillians and is one of the nine original libraries funded by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Through the Western branch and its resources, previously educationally marginalized Black citizens in Louisville gained tools and resources for learning unlike they’d ever had access to before. 

As literacy rates climbed steadily amongst Black Americans following emancipation, Black desire for scholastic fulfillment and the fight for equality in access to education was at an all-time high. In fact, many Black Kentuckians, particularly those in Louisville, were among the leaders at the forefront of the national struggle for this equality when the Kentucky State Legislature passed legislation in 1902 that created the Louisville Free Public Library. At the time, the proposal for the LFPL branches was intended only for white Louisvillians, and this legislation made no mention of offering any such services to Black citizens in the community who also desperately wanted them. 

As a result, a growing population of Black readers in Louisville worked to challenge city officials in hopes of creating an additional branch of the library that would be fully operated by and exclusively serve Black Louisvillians. At the forefront of this movement was the then-principal of Central High School, Albert Meyzeek, who was concerned about Black student literacy rates and access to adequate reading materials at his school. As a result, Meyzeek began taking his students to the Polytechnic Society Library downtown, where after a few visits, he and his students were denied access to their services because of the color of their skin. Enraged by the lack of adequate library access for Black Louisvillians, Meyzeek began attending the City Library Committee meetings where he passionately and persistently argued that an additional branch of the newly-proposed Louisville Free Public Library must be created to serve the Black community. Meyzeek’s advocacy was successful, and the Western branch was soon established.

In late 1905, the Western branch first opened as a three-room apartment on West Walnut Street in the heart of Louisville’s predominantly Black West End district. The library saw huge success initially as there was significant pent-up educational demand from the Black community there. Within just three months of its opening, reports indicated 4,132 people had visited and 1,545 books were borrowed. However, it wasn’t long before the staff at the Western branch became overwhelmed by the high community interest in the library and its services, and administrators decided to expand capacity and relocate. Through Andrew Carnegie’s generous donations and support, in 1908 the Western Branch was able to move into a new building at the corner of 10th and Chestnut Streets, where it still sits today. 

Thomas Fountain Blue was selected to serve as the Western branch’s first librarian. Blue’s impact on the Black community in Louisville during his time as a librarian cannot be overstated. As the first librarian at the nation’s only library serving Black citizens, Blue knew the importance of the role he was about to fill. Like Meyzeek, Blue believed education through schools and libraries offered the most effective means for social uplift in the Black community. In his tenure, Blue emphasized not only educating Black Louisvillians and providing them with the highest-quality library resources, but he also made a point to work for Black inclusion into broader American society. Blue focused on making the Western branch a space for fostering racial progress through its books, reference materials, community spaces, and a number of other initiatives. 

Thomas Blue and staff of the Western branch library, 1927. Photo: UofL Archives.

Working from the philosophical framework of intellectuals like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, Blue built a collection of books concerning Black events, culture, and history written by Black authors. Blue also initiated an apprenticeship course for Black citizens wishing to enter the library field that lasted until the 1930s. Before the Hampton Institute opened their library school, this training course at the Western branch was the first of its kind in the emerging field of library science and trained dozens of Black Americans–particularly women– from all across the South.

Seven women serve apprenticeships at the Western Branch preparing for library service. Three from Louisville and one each from Houston, Texas; Cincinnati, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Evansville, Indiana. Photo: UofL Archives.

Another one of Blue’s primary initiatives was to increase literacy rates amongst Black youth and cultivate a pool of young Black readers. With the help of another Western branch supervisor, Rachel Harris, Blue organized a Children’s Department that hosted reading clubs, storytime, debate, and other entertaining events for Louisville’s Black children. In addition, Black poet and educator, Joseph Cotter, sponsored a children’s storytelling contest every year where winners would receive cash awards and statewide and national recognition. The Cotter Cup is still in place today.

In 1909, Blue created the Douglass Debating Club for high school boys. This debate club served as a program to acquaint Black male youth in Louisville with public speaking, contemporary topics in politics, parliamentary procedure, and how to prepare an oral argument. The club met weekly at the Western branch and participated in a debate contest in Louisville annually. Some of the subjects the Douglass club debated included suffrage rights for women, whether Abraham Lincoln was a greater American than George Washington, and if Germany was justified in taking up arms against the Allies. Often, the Black male youth that participated in the Douglass Debate Club went on to enroll in prestigious universities throughout the country and see great success.

Douglass Debate Club, 1914. Photo: Louisville Free Public Library.

In 2012, the Western branch underwent major renovations to include the African-American Archives Reading Room, which houses the historical papers of Thomas Fountain Blue and Joseph Cotter, as well as an extensive collection of material focusing on the Black experience in America. Today, the Western Branch Library still stands on the corner of 10th and Chestnut Streets as a testament to Albert Meyzeek, Thomas Fountain Blue, and all the other Black patrons who have utilized its services in search of self-enlightenment, an equal opportunity for education, and a sense of community. The Western branch then offered — and still continues to offer today– Black Louisvillians a year-round place to learn and grow. And for that, it should be honored.

A Louisville Story: A Short Essay on Shelby Lanier

While many of us may not typically consider a police officer to be a presence in a community beyond our day-to-day jobs, there are some that stick out. It’s partially a result of a police force that has become more focused on drug busts and bringing down crime statistics than on building relationships with communities. It doesn’t help that many police officers don’t live in the same areas they operate in. Throughout history, there are some that have become heroes, not just for their apprehending criminals or saving someone’s life, but for their willingness to challenge the status quo of the institution they represented. They saw that something was indeed wrong with the system and did not fear taking it on in order to right a wrong. Shelby Lanier was one of those storied few. 

In the early 1970s, the Louisville Police Department had been rife with racial discrimination. Notably, many black applicants would frequently be passed over in favor of white applicants. Qualified black officers eligible for promotion would be ignored in favor of white officers. In 1977 for example, only 1 black officer was accepted into the department, vs 38 white officers.  Racial discrimination came in other forms as well. Lanier had often spoken about how casually white officers would throw around racial slurs, and how he would often find notes written to him and would be harassed and badgered by his command because of his outspokenness and his activist nature. In 1972, he wrote a letter to the mayor of Louisville, accusing the police of acting as “judge and executioner” in black neighborhoods, and was suspended and demoted in rank.

Alongside his outspoken nature, he was also a prolific organizer. In the early 1970s, Shelby founded both the Louisville Black Police Officers Organization and the National Black Police Officers Association. Both of these organizations were dedicated to combating police brutality and forming better relations between the police and the black community. These organizations became instrumental when in 1974, he and a number of other black officers organized under the NBPOA  filed a class-action lawsuit against the Louisville Police Department in federal court alleging that the department routinely discriminated against Black police officers in their hiring, promoting, and firing practices. As a result of Lanier’s lawsuit, a federal court ordered the Louisville Police Department to enter a consent decree and hire one Black officer for every two white officers, in an attempt to rebalance the number of white and black police officers within the department. A later lawsuit in 1987 would result in 96 black applicants receiving a $4.7 million dollar settlement. He would receive harsh and public retaliation for his efforts to bring change to the department. 

A high profile version of that backlash came when in 1977, after giving a speech and a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration, he was lambasted by the then Chief of Police during an interview with a local news station, calling Shelby “one of the worst racists in the history of the Louisville Division of police.” Not long after that interview, Lanier would be fired and would win a defamation suit, and get his job back 10 years later. He would then be suspended again after speaking out against racism by white police officers, calling it “a legitimate threat to the black community”. 

Even outside of his police career he was known for being a strong activist. He would often show up at school board meetings and challenge many of the members on what they were doing to improve education in black communities. As president of the local NAACP chapter, he led a push for Black representation on a task force formed to make changes to the state school system. He was also involved in protesting U of L’s participation in the 1990 Fiesta Bowl in Arizona because the state had refused to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day a holiday. 

His career and his activism are something modern police departments can learn from. In particular, the rank and file police officers can learn an important lesson in speaking out and calling for reform. It is my hope that in the next few years more police come out and call for reforms within their departments, and take the necessary actions to make them happen. It’s one of the few ways we will be able to truly see some change take place. In light of the continuing deaths that have occurred at the hands of the police, many have understandably taken on the view that the system of policing itself is in need of a complete reconstruction. In order to accomplish that reconstruction, we have to find the Shelby Laniers within these departments, encourage them to take action, and construct a vision for what we want public safety to be.  As Shelby Lanier once said during a 1994 MLK commemoration speech, “you have to have a vision while you’re awake to accomplish things.”

The Everlasting Impact of Muhammad Ali

For Black History Month, the Louisville Political Review celebrates black stories and heroes. Today, we celebrate Louisville’s hero, the Great Muhammad Ali.

The Red Bike That Changed History

Ali was born in Louisville, Kentucky as Cassius Clay (former name until 1964) on January 17th of 1942 in a legally segregated country, in which black people could not use the same public accommodations as their white counterparts. At the age of 12, he had his brand-new bike stolen. Clay filed a police report with the help of Officer Joe Martin. A fired-up Ali sought revenge, he wanted to “whup’ whoever it was who stole his bike”, Officer Martin suggested he first begin to learn how to fight before he starts actually fighting. This act of petty theft would be the beginning of a glamourous boxing career for Clay. under the training from Martin at Columbia Gym, which is now a part of the campus of Spalding University. He would go on to accumulate six Kentucky Golden Gloves ( a segregated tournament due to the Plessy v. Ferguson case that established the separate but equal doctrine preserving segregation in public facilities before the 1959 Supreme Court decision of Dorsey v. State Athletic Commission) alongside other amateur prizes.

In 1960, he participated in the Olympic games in Rome, where he won all of his fights with ease and defeated three-time European champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski to win the gold medal at the tender age of 18. Ali would carry this momentum into his extensive boxing career by defeating Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight World Championship in 1964. Ali would continuously defend his title 9 times in four years. Ali would return to boxing after a short exile in 1970. The famous Rumble in the Jungle, a fight between Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa Zaire (the current capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1974 allowed Ali to regain the heavyweight belt. Ali would end his blistering boxing career with an unfortunate loss to Trevor Berbick at the age of 39 in 1981, but his impact on the boxing community remains ever-present.

Vietnam War and Exile

The Military Selective Service Act of 1917 (50 U.S. Code § 3801.) declares that an “armed strength must be achieved and maintained to ensure the security of this nation . . . in a free society the obligations and privileges of serving in the armed forces and the reserve components thereof should be shared generally, in accordance with a system of selection which is fair and just, and which is consistent with the maintenance of an effective national economy.” What this means is that if there is a war impending. The draft, which mandates anybody selected to serve in a specific conflict, can be used by Congress.

Ali registered for the draft at age 18 as he was required to do so. He was listed 1-Y (used in national emergency only) because of his dyslexia. That would change in 1966 when the standards were lowered. Now Ali was listed at 1-A, which meant that he was eligible to be drafted due to the new guidelines championed by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, known as Project 100,000. McNamara decreased the criterion that would fulfill military personnel requirements on the Armed Forces Qualifying Exam, an intelligence exam. As the U.S. was involved in the Vietnam War, Ali was drafted, but he refused to serve because he had converted to Islam and the war was against the teachings of the Qur’an. Ali defended his stance in an interview by saying that “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? …How can I shoot them poor people, Just take me to jail.” Ali noted that he had no quarrel with the people of Vietnam. He raised the question of why should he drop bombs on people who have not harmed him and his people when “so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights”. As a result of his refusal to be inducted into the armed forces on April 28, 1967, he was arrested and stripped of his New York boxing license the same day. Other boxing commissions such as the World Boxing Association suspended his boxing license and stripped him of all titles he earned.

Ali was blackballed from the boxing scene as virtually all states refused to give him a boxing license for three years. And on June 20, 1967, Ali was sentenced to 5 years after the grand jury took just 20 minutes to deliberate. In 1971, the case of Clay v. the United States went to the Supreme Court of the United States where they ruled in a per curiam opinion that the Appeal Board gave no substantial reason for their denial of a conscientious objector exemption to Ali and promptly ordered the conviction to be reversed. The generational impact of Ali’s courageous act to refuse the draft is immense. He has inspired countless black athletes such as Gwen Berry at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, and Colin Kaepernick in his refusal to stand for the national anthem because of what the American flag stood for in his eyes. Ali was willing to walk away from boxing for his beliefs and likewise, Kaepernick says that “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color . . . this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.” Kaepernick and Ali have similar phrases and positions. Having the bravery to leave all behind to uphold their values.

The legacy left behind

As a part of his Islamic responsibility of doing charitable acts and virtuous deeds, Ali has donated millions to charitable organizations all over the world. Examples of the humanitarian support that Ali displayed in his lifetime include visiting a Palestinian refugee camp in 1974. He declared that “the United States is the stronghold of Zionism and imperialism”, and he stated, “In my name and the name of all Muslims in America, I declare support for the Palestinian struggle to liberate their homeland and oust the Zionist invaders.” Ali also demonstrated his support for Indigenous tribes in the United States by participating in the Longest Walk, which is a spiritual walk across the country in solidarity with Native American tribes. His lifelong fight against Parkinson’s disease led him to collaborate with Michael J. Fox to appear in a congressional hearing where they pleaded for more funding to research Parkinson’s. Unfortunately, on June 3rd of 2016, Muhammad Ali passed away. The world came to a halt, as non-stop coverage of his death and celebration of his life aired across all forms of media, with his memorial being watched by an estimated 1 billion viewers worldwide.

The city of Louisville continues to honor the legacy of Muhammad Ali by having various murals throughout the city, changing Walnut Street to Muhammad Ali Boulevard, having the airport name changed to the Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport, and with the help of the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, people all over the world can come and observe the life that he lived. As we celebrate Black History Month, I challenge you to find inspiration through black historical figures like Ali that share similar values as you do. I have found mine and I will continue to honor his fight for social justice and humanitarian aid as I have been inspired by the greatest boxer the world has ever seen.

Voting Rights Are a Major Issue in Kentucky

The right to vote is currently under attack from all angles. The Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, state legislatures across the country are passing laws that will remove voting rights from many Black Americans, and trust in election processes and democracy are historically low. There is a strong national effort to strip Black people of their citizenship rights, primarily voting, using a variety of methods. The most efficient method is felon disenfranchisement, a denial of voting rights to those who previously served time in prison.

Although Kentucky seems mostly removed from the public debate surrounding “election security” efforts and was touted for making voting quite easy during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state cannot escape criticism for the stark racial discrimination in its election rules. 15% of its Black population cannot cast a ballot legally. 20% of Black men within its borders, incarcerated at higher rates, are denied the franchise. Felon disenfranchisement must end so every Kentuckian’s voice can be heard. 

A Brief History of Felon Disenfranchisement

Felon disenfranchisement laws are nothing new. Both the Ancient Greeks and Romans prohibited convicted criminals from voting as part of a process called “civil death.” Civil death was the removal of rights and liberties from those who previously served time in prison. It carried over to Europe, especially England, later on through the legal tradition. The American colonists inherited civil death from English common law but quickly dispensed with most of its aspects. Felon disenfranchisement was not one of them. 

By 1869, 29 of 37 states had instituted laws banning felons from the ballot. During the Jim Crow Era, these laws were a small part of the bureaucratic maze that disenfranchised the Black South. After the Civil Rights movement convinced Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, many of the disenfranchisement tools utilized by state governments were handicapped. Literacy tests and all-white primaries were gone, but felon disenfranchisement remained by virtue of a clause in the second section of the 14th Amendment leaving the door open for states to deny the franchise for ex-felons. 

When mass incarceration and the new “civil death” levied on convicted felons replaced Jim Crow as the prominent racist system, felon disenfranchisement became a far more effective tool than it was before. According to author Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, only two decades after the War on Drugs began, 1 in 7 Black men could not vote. In some states, the rate was as high as 1 in 4. Today, 48 states revoke voting rights from those currently in prison, 16 states remove rights until completion of sentence, probation, and parole. 11 permanently remove voting rights for at least some ex-felons. 3 states permanently remove them from all ex-felons.

What Does This Have to Do With Kentucky?  

Kentucky is one of the three states that ban all ex-felons from voting for life. Felon disenfranchisement was originally written into Kentucky’s constitution in 1891. This stain on the state’s charter denies access to the ballot box to a few hundred thousand Kentuckians, disproportionately Black. 

In 2019, Governor Andy Beshear restored voting rights to most non-violent ex-felons, a total of 178,000 citizens. Unfortunately, this is not a permanent reversal. Kentucky’s constitution allows the Governor to unilaterally restore voting rights via executive order, but those decisions can be reversed by future governors. This is exactly what happened when former governor Matt Bevin reversed his predecessor Steve Beshear’s executive order when he took office in 2015, arbitrarily rescinding the franchise from those Kentuckians. 

Playing political ping-pong with such a fundamental right is disgraceful. Leaving a decision over the rights of hundreds of thousands up to just one person is destructive to democracy, and hurtful to those whose rights are at stake. A permanent solution is required to safeguard ex-felons from discrimination, and Kentucky’s constitution offers one. 

The Solution 

An amendment to the Kentucky constitution is necessary to ensure everyone has the right to vote in the state. In Kentucky, a constitutional amendment must pass both houses of the General Assembly with three-fifths support. Then the amendment will be presented to Kentucky voters at the next election, where citizens will get the opportunity to accept or reject it. In fact, in 2020 the Kentucky Senate passed a proposed constitutional amendment to grant felons their voting rights unless they committed certain felonies. Disagreements over the specific text of the amendment resulted in the House never voting on that proposal. 

It’s now 2022, and the General Assembly shows no signs of reconsidering those amendment proposals. This is inexcusable when 197,000 Kentucky citizens cannot vote, and another 178,000’s eligibility to vote depends on the whims of the governor. Even more so when one realizes the next governor of Kentucky will not likely be Andy Beshear, and if Matt Bevin was any indicator in 2015, it is probable the next Republican governor would reverse Beshear’s restoration upon entry into office in 2023. 

Free men and women in Kentucky are taxed without representation, regulated without a voice, and policed without political presence. Yet the General Assembly is ignoring this undemocratic, un-American crisis. In a Courier Journal report outlining what issues would be important in the upcoming legislative session, criminal justice ranked a low six out of seven major focuses. Worse, felon disenfranchisement was not specifically mentioned as an aspect of criminal justice reform efforts in the state. 

The reluctance to consider voting rights restoration from state representatives is not representative of the will of Kentucky’s citizens. 67% of Kentuckians support the automatic restoration of voting rights upon completion of prison sentences. A vast majority of adults aged 18-34 support restoration, totaling 84%. Our elected officials, chosen by us to represent our interests, have ignored the people’s voice, resulting in a diminished popular will, one that does not fully encompass or reflect the people’s desires. As long as one in five Black men in the state cannot participate in electoral processes, every decision made by our elected representatives cannot fully mirror the wishes of those they govern. 

Until Kentucky amends its constitution, it will continue to lag behind the rest of the nation and the free world. Until its racist, archaic felon disenfranchisement clause is expunged from the law, those whose rights hang in the balance will continue to hold little hope of achieving full citizenship. My older brother, an ex-felon in Kentucky, had this to say, “It’s the way of the world, it’s not going to change. But it’s dead wrong, especially if you have paid your debt to society. You should make a man whole again, not leave him partial because of a mistake he made. Treat me equally. You treat me equally when you tax me.” 

From Cotton to Congress: The Remarkable Rise and Careers of the First Black Congressmen

As a congressional intern with a passion for U.S. history and virtually unrestricted access to the entirety of the U.S. Capitol Building, I took every chance I could get to leave my office and explore. Unfortunate circumstances, both COVID-19 and the January 6th riot, left the great halls of Congress closed off to the public and largely empty. Whereas just a few years ago I stood clustered in the Capitol Rotunda with thousands of other tourists, I then stood there alone, able to appreciate the magnificence of the people’s house and the history that it embodies. The Capitol is not only a phenomenal monument to the genius of the system of limited government and individual liberties laid out in our Constitution, but it is also the host of a rich and ever-progressing history of American leaders overcoming the struggles of their times in order to bring the country closer to the ideals of liberty and justice for all that it was founded upon.

It was on one of my daily Capitol adventures that I came across a special exhibit dedicated to Joseph Rainey, the first Black member of the United States House of Representatives. It was the 150th anniversary of Congressman Rainey’s swearing-in ceremony, and I was astonished to see that the Congressman, a former slave, took office just five years after the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. He was joined in Black congressional representation by Hiram Revels, the first Black member of the United States Senate, who ironically took over the seat of none other than Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The election of these inspiring two men at this time in history alone is amazing, but their records as passionate advocates of civil rights are even more impressive and deserve recognition and appreciation in our history books. 

The Upbringings of a Congressman

Joseph Rainey was born into slavery in Georgetown, South Carolina in 1832. His father, in addition to his slave work, was allowed to work as a barber and keep a portion of his income. After years of hard work, Rainey’s father saved up enough money to buy his own freedom, and then the freedom of his wife and two children. Rainey grew up as a free man working in his father’s barbershop and educating himself on works of classic literature.

Despite his legally acquired freedom, Rainey was still forced into service for the Confederacy upon the outbreak of the Civil War. He worked on a Bahamas-bound Confederate blockade runner ship, which evaded Union trade blockades in order to export cotton and import weapons and other supplies. In 1862, Rainey escaped his Confederate conscription by boldly boarding a trade ship headed towards Bermuda, a thriving British colony free of slavery. He and his wife stayed here until the end of the war.

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution put the final nail in the coffin of the institution of slavery, but the battle for equality and civil rights had only just begun. When Rainey returned to his home state of South Carolina, 400,000 newly freed men and women increased the free Black population to a point of becoming an accounted racial majority of 60% in the state and propelling African-Americans into positions of leadership in a time of reconstruction and Constitutional reform. 

Joseph Rainey’s first experience in public service came with his nomination to be a delegate to a statewide constitutional convention, a monumental task of reform to be taken up by all former Confederate states following the war. Following this, in April 1868, Rainey was elected to the South Carolina State Senate. One of the first matters of public policy faced by Rainey was the question of ratifying the 14th Amendment, of which he was a staunch supporter, as it aimed to secure the citizenship of African-Americans and extend the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law. After fiercely defending and advocating for the amendment, Rainey successfully helped in achieving its ratification.

Hiram Revels, unlike Joseph Rainey, was born a free man in North Carolina. His father was a Baptist preacher, who made sure his son had the opportunity to receive a quality education at a local Black-run private school. Revels took after his father and went on to study theology and become a preacher. Revels traveled all across the U.S. to preach the gospel to free and enslaved Black men and women. He even served in a church right here in Louisville, Kentucky. Of course, not everyone appreciated Revels’ preaching in the South. In 1854, he was arrested for the crime of “preaching the gospel to Negroes” in Missouri. 

When the Civil War broke out, Revels served as an army chaplain and recruited Black soldiers, and formed army regiments in Maryland to fight for the cause of the Union. Revels led and established several schools for freedmen across the U.S. before finally settling down in Mississippi in 1866, where he worked with the newly created Freedmen’s Bureau to provide Black children with new schools and a good education.

The Post-Civil War Battles in Congress for Equal Rights

Revels was the first to be elected and sent to D.C. to serve as a Senator for Mississippi. He arrived on Capitol Hill in 1870 to face the relentless opposition of Senate Democrats claiming his election was illegitimate. Democrats, lamentably led by Senator Garrett Davis from our Kentucky Commonwealth, asserted that Revels did not meet the Constitutional requirement in Article I, Section 3 that Senators had to have nine years of being a U.S. citizen. Davis and the Democrats argued that Revels had only been a citizen for four years following the passage of the 1866 Civil Rights and the ratification of the 14th Amendment, basing much of their argument on the poor legal decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford (1957) which held that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves,” whether enslaved or free, could not be a citizen of the U.S. Revels and Republicans successfully refuted this, declaring Dred Scott a reprehensibly incorrect decision and arguing that the law’s mere recognition of Black men’s citizenship didn’t mean they were “new” citizens, as they should’ve already been recognized as such.

Joseph Rainey came to D.C. later that year after being elected to serve as a Representative for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. While Revels was only able to serve in Congress for just one year due to the nature of the special election, Rainey served a total of four terms (eight years), allowing him to play a significant part in crafting the earliest civil rights laws.

In the era of reconstruction following the Civil War, the rapid racial progress and Union occupation in the South led to growing resentment and the rise of the terroristic white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Legion. The violence of these groups was the worst in Rainey’s home state. The situation had gotten so bad that even public officials like Rainey himself had been subject to death threats. Rainey’s letter from the Klan read, “Your doom is sealed in blood … notice be given to [Joseph Rainey] to prepare to meet [his] God. Take heed, stay not. Here the climate is too hot for you.” Rainey and many Republicans were appalled and knew that something had to be done to put an end to the Klan’s terror. 

That is why Republicans introduced the Ku Klux Klan Act, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The Act allowed for federal lawsuits to be taken up against state officers and even private actors for civil rights violations, meaning a “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” It also empowered the President to suspend the writ of habeas corpus – the privilege to challenge and be free of alleged unlawful or indefinite detainment – and deploy federal troops to arrest terrorist white supremacists. Opponents of the Act rejected the idea of federal troops appropriating local authority to address crimes of murder, assault, and trespassing, asserting that such laws were best left behind in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

Rainey had a powerful and persuasive story for his skeptical colleagues, though. He testified to the need for a greater federal response, as he personally witnessed the terror and potential bloodbaths to be inflicted by these white supremacists. Traveling by horseback to a Republican rally in the town of Bennettsville, South Carolina, Rainey and sixty of his fellow Republicans were confronted suddenly by an armed militia of hundreds of white supremacists brandishing shotguns, ax handles, and other weapons. Thankfully, federal troops were not too far behind, as they were tipped off and able to defuse the confrontation. 

Rainey concluded his story, grateful to the federal troops, and enquiring to his colleagues, “Do you expect my race to submit meekly to continual persecution and massacre by these people in the South? In the name of my race and my people, in the name of humanity, in the name of God, I ask you whether we are to be American citizens … or whether we are to be vassals and slaves again?”

The Ku Klux Klan Act was passed in Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant later that day. Nearly six months later, Grant used his newly acquired powers in several South Carolina counties, demonstrating the willingness of the Republican-led federal government to ensure the preservation of civil rights. Grant’s military action and the federal government’s “legal offensive” effectively crushed the Klan of that era and “produced a dramatic decline in violence throughout the South.”

Rainey’s efforts to advance civil rights didn’t stop there. Just a few years later, the Republicans proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which aimed to establish the “equality of all men before the law” and prohibit racial discrimination in public accommodations, such as restaurants and public transportation, but excluding schools and churches after facing heated opposition. The act also made it a crime for anyone to facilitate the denial of these public accommodations on the basis of color, race, or “previous condition of servitude.” Rainey’s speeches along with other new Black members of Congress helped propel the act to the desk of President Grant in March of 1875, where it would be signed into law.

The Legislators’ Legacies

In the perpetual battle for civil rights for African-Americans, the accomplishments of both Revels and Rainey faced some major setbacks. Congressman Rainey, who had served the longest of any Black congressman of his time, had his career cut short by a fraudulent election in 1878, in which his opponent, a white former Confederate officer and Democrat, won 62% of the vote in a majority Black, Republican district thanks to the spread of false ballots by Democratic leaders. Several years later in 1883, Rainey’s great work, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, took a major blow by the Supreme Court in the Civil Rights Cases, where the act was declared to be an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’s 14th amendment powers, arguing that the amendment did not permit federal regulation of private discrimination. The era of Jim Crow laws and Black voter suppression began, and Congress was soon devoid of all Black members. The Ku Klux Klan was revived in the 1920s with millions of new members.

As we all know, segregationists and the Klan did not win in the end. Just as the Klan was revived, so too was the movement for civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s. Legislators who were advocates for civil rights drew upon the work of Senator Revels, Congressman Rainey, and other pioneer Black congressmen to create the ambitious and still-enduring Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. African-Americans soon returned to the halls of Congress to continue a powerful history of legislative action for liberty and justice. Black Republican Senator Tim Scott, representing Congressman Rainey’s home state of South Carolina, reflected upon the progress made in America over the years and how his family went “from cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” an achievement shared and first made possible by our nation’s first Black Congressman. The great legacies of Senator Hiram Revels and Congressman Joseph Rainey endure to this day in the halls of Congress and the spirit of this country. It would serve us all well to step back, appreciate, and gain inspiration from these two phenomenal public servants.

Segregation and Racism in Jefferson County Public Schools

Prior to 1975, public schools in Louisville, Kentucky were separated into two districts: the Louisville school system and the Jefferson County school system. After the Supreme Court decision in Milliken v. Bradley in 1974, the Kentucky Board of Education merged the two districts into one, naming it the Jefferson County Public Schools System. The Jefferson County Public Schools System, also known as JCPS, is the largest school system in Kentucky and the 29th largest school system in the United States. The school system serves roughly 96,000 students, 66.7% of those students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

In response to the district merger, many white families fled to the suburbs. When white families flocked to the suburbs, they took tax dollars that could have been invested into inner-city schools with them. The effects of “White Flight” can still be seen in school systems today, especially within JCPS schools. In the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation within public schools was unconstitutional because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. After the ruling in Brown, schools were forced to craft desegregation plans. The plan that most school districts came up with was mandatory busing that would racially integrate schools. Mandatory busing was disguised as a plan that would benefit both Black and White school children, but it resulted in a majority of Black students taking buses throughout the district.

Between 1987 and 2008, there was a rising trend in segregation due to white flight and desegregation policies. In 1991, JCPS schools created elementary school “clusters” and established “school choice.” In hopes of integrating elementary schools, JCPS gerrymandered elementary school clusters and created school zones that aimed to combine students from all areas of the city. Although each JCPS student is assigned a group of schools they are allowed to go to based on where they reside, the district allows families to essentially choose what school they send their children to within the district because of the current transfer policy. JCPS parents don’t have to provide a true reason as to why they’re transferring out of their assigned school. As long as there is an open seat in their desired school, the student has satisfactory grades and has no suspensions on their record,  they’re often allowed to transfer.

JCPS’ transfer policy essentially allows segregation within the school district. White parents are able to opt-out of going to predominantly Black schools, and Black students remain at the schools that they’re assigned to. According to data provided by JCPS, high schools that are predominantly Black have a high number of students transferring to predominantly White schools. During the 2019-2020 school year, Waggener, a high school within JCPS that is 53% Black, had 57 students transfer to predominantly white schools. The current transfer policy negatively impacts Black students in JCPS because they are being denied the opportunity to attend integrated schools, a promise that was given in the Brown v. Board decision. When discussing desegregation within schools, Judge Debra M. Brown wrote: “The delay in desegregation has deprived generations of students of the constitutionally- guaranteed right of an integrated education.”

JCPS has a high number of students in poverty, which results in a number of schools being labeled as “Title I schools.” Title I is a federally funded program that provides financial assistance to schools with a high poverty rate. A school is eligible to receive Title I funds if 40% of the school qualifies for free and reduced lunch. When conducting my research, I decided to focus on JCPS middle schools. I chose to explore the relationship between Title I schools, race, and discipline within middle schools in the Jefferson County Public School System. The racial inequities present within JCPS are often overlooked, leaving the needs of Black students to be unmet. If these issues aren’t addressed, generations of Black children to come will face hardships at the hands of the education system. 

Out of the 27 middle schools in JCPS, there are only 4 schools available to the West End. Two of the schools are magnet schools, one of those being a new all-girls school for young women interested in STEAM, and the others are “resides” schools, meaning they are assigned to students based on where they live. There are 62,000 residents in the West End of Louisville, 80% of them are African American. All of the schools in the West End are Title I schools and three out of the four schools have a high number of suspensions. The three middle schools that serve the East End are all predominantly white and have a lower suspension rate than those in the West End. Why is it that Black students are getting suspended at a higher rate than their White counterparts for the same incidents? Why does the location of a school determine how the students are treated? Black children are being criminalized because of their skin color and are forced to miss school, furthering the racial achievement gap between Black and White students. When Black students are stripped from the classroom, they are missing out on face-to-face instruction, which can cause them to fall behind in school.

With that being said, one may think that if schools were to become more integrated, these racial inequities would disappear, and sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Many of these issues are interwoven and in order to see true change, the entirety of the education system has to be reevaluated in order to best meet the needs of all students. As promised in Brown v. Board of Education, students have the right to an education in an integrated school. Although JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio has worked on creating a new student assignment plan since 2017, the process needs to be hastened because Black students’ livelihoods are at stake. JCPS prioritizes the feelings of other students, yet fails to see how the system is taking a toll on Black students.

Sadly, the public paints schools as “good” or “bad” based on whether they are majority white or Black, which causes some JCPS students to be embarrassed about where they receive their education. In the Courier Journal podcast, A “Bad” School,  JCPS students give first-hand accounts of their experience within their respective schools. If all schools had the same opportunities and resources, Black students wouldn’t have to be bused throughout the city to “good” schools, and schools that are predominantly Black wouldn’t be labeled as “bad” schools. Many people fail to look below the surface and see how many of these trends, such as high dropout rates, are linked to systemic racism. Simply put, a school should just be a school. If all schools are given the same facilities, same access to test preparatory courses, given equal punishments, etc.,  then all students, regardless of race, would feel confident attending a school within the Jefferson County Public School System.

Red Cross Hospital: Perseverance in the Bleak Face of Segregation

Few things mar the history of American cities as severely as the Jim Crow era of racial segregation and discrimination–and Louisville is no exception. Among many other injustices, Black people living in Jim Crow Louisville were overtly discriminated against even in health care. 

In 1899, only two hospitals in Louisville would treat Black patients: Louisville General Hospital and Waverly Sanatorium, but Waverly Sanatorium only treated tuberculosis patients. Louisville General kept space for impoverished patients, including Black ones, but was segregated. It was not until 1951 that Black physicians could practice at any hospital in Louisville

With almost nowhere to go because of the color of their skin, a group of Black doctors and community members got together and decided to solve the problem. They launched Louisville’s first all-Black hospital: a place where Black physicians could practice and Black patients could receive treatment, regardless of whether they could pay or not.

This ambitious project was undertaken by the Red Cross Association, which is separate from the American Red Cross. This organization set out “to equip and maintain a sanitarium for the purpose of treating the sick of the race under the observation of their own people and to operate in connection with such an institution a training school where women of the race can be educated as professional nurses.”

The Red Cross Hospital found its first home on the corner of Sixth and Walnut in a two-story, A-frame home. Back then, West Walnut Street was actually a hub for the Black community. Dr. W.T. Merchant and Dr. Ellis D. Wheedbee founded the hospital and were among the first to practice there. Dr. R.B. Scott is listed as a founder by some sources but not by others; regardless, he clearly played an instrumental role in the hospital’s early years. Although not mentioned in other sources, Dr. Solomon Stone, Dr. E. S. Porter, and Dr. William H. Perry are listed as founders by the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database. Lizzie Green Bates, a notable activist and contributor to the hospital, is also credited as a founder by separate sources. 

Accordingly, the hospital began its history with at least six Black physicians on staff- an impressive number for a time when the Black community in Louisville faced a shortage of physicians.

During those early years, the hospital was overseen by a committee consisting entirely of women. Called the Women’s Board of Manager, it initially consisted of Mrs. Bertha Wheedbee—also the first Black woman to become a police officer in Louisville–Mrs. R.B. Scott, Mrs. W.T. Merchant (these three were married to physicians at the hospital), and Mrs. Ophelia Matthews. The board was chaired by the aforementioned Lizzie Green Bates.

1905 saw the hospital move to a new, larger location at 1436 S. Shelby St. where it stayed for the remainder of its history. Originally a single two-story building, this new location was expanded by a number of additions over the years. In its first years, funds for the hospital, its additions, and its move-in were raised largely by the community. Fundraisers for the hospital included “fish suppers, raffles, and teas” sponsored by congregations and other community-minded organizations. 

Eventually, the hospital drew much of its funding from the donations of Mrs. Hattie B. Speed. Speed was introduced to the hospital by her former traveling companion who had become a nurse there. This nurse was likely Mary E. Merrit, who worked at the hospital in various capacities from 1914 until 1945. After graduating from Berea College, Merritt worked as a nurse in Washington D.C. before landing a job at Red Cross. The first Black registered nurse in Kentucky, Merritt served as the hospital’s head nurse and oversaw its nursing school. The nursing school, which existed by 1914, is one example of the hospital’s rapid growth in the 1910s and ‘20s. The hospital was able to expand with several brick buildings during this time period.

Unfortunately, the nursing school closed in 1937, losing its accreditation as the hospital struggled to find funding. 


However, the shortage of funds didn’t last long for Red Cross Hospital, as the 1940s were a time of impressive growth and a number of firsts. To kick off the 1940s, the hospital hired its first house physician, Dr. William B. Settle. Then in 1941, Dr. J.B. Bell was hired as the first medical director.

Dr. Bell worked with Louisville’s Director of Health, Dr. Hugh Level, to raise $21,000 (around $337,000 in today’s money) for the improvement of the hospital. Among other things, this money was used to hire new staff to work with their laboratory and x-ray technology. Additionally, new funding enabled the hospital to increase its number of beds by sixteen and update its equipment in the 1940s. 

The hospital was also able to open a cancer clinic in the 1940s, and in 1948, the nursing school reopened. 

The staff grew alongside the facilities in the 1940s. The hospital brought on a new wave of staff including a dietician, a bookkeeper, a records clerk, and a new board of trustees. Undoubtedly, this new wave of staff was a major reason for the hospital’s ability to boom like it did that decade.

The 1950s continued the growth of the 1940s. In 1951, the Heyburn Building was added. This  $650,000 (around $16.7 million in today’s money) addition upped the hospital’s bed number to 100. It also greatly extended the hospital’s capabilities, allowing them to add a dental clinic, new operating rooms, new nurseries, a new lab, and more. 

The 1950s, however, were also the beginning of the end for Red Cross Hospital. Fortunately, Black physicians were admitted to practice at other hospitals in Louisville in 1951, beginning with Jewish Hospital. This was a major step toward equality, not only were Black physicians now recognized for the quality of their work, but they also had more job opportunities in Louisville. This had a snowball effect with the late 1950s seeing a significant movement for the end of medical segregation.

Even with integration increasing competition for physicians and patients, the hospital continued to succeed through the 1960s. It offered nearly everything from dentistry to obstetrics to surgery, and its staff included whites. In fact, in 1964, 271 babies were delivered at Red Cross Hospital. The continued growth of the hospital is evidenced by the fact that its patient load increased by 150% from 1945 to 1965.

The 1970s were the last decade Red Cross Hospital operated. In 1972, the hospital renamed itself Community Hospital in an attempt to stay afloat. However, the hospital would eventually close its doors in 1976, as it struggled to pay off nearly $50,000 in debt.

The eventual close of the hospital was a tragic moment in Louisville’s history. When the Red Cross Hospital was operating, it was a true community institution. The institution undoubtedly provided quality care to a community in need. Unfortunately, with fewer avenues of funding and more options for Black people in Louisville, the Red Cross Hospital, like many hospitals at the time, was put out of business as it struggled to compete with larger hospitals with more technology and equipment.

Founded in 1899 as an answer to the challenge of Black healthcare during Jim Crow, Red Cross Hospital’s success and expansion was a testament to the excellence of the physicians, nurses, administrators, technicians, and all others who worked there. While it was open and operating, the Red Cross Hospital served as undeniable evidence of the perseverance and strength of Louisville’s Black community, and for that, it deserves to be remembered. 

John Brown: A Biography

The institution of slavery will forever plague American history. The slave economy was a core feature of the growth of the financial system, culture, and politics of the country for almost two and a half centuries until it ultimately became a catalyst for civil war.

Though the institution was dismantled, it molded into something hardly less gruesome: the criminalization of black life.

Present in America’s history, too, is a rich tradition of abolitionism, resistance, and struggle continuing on to today. There are troves of literature, memoirs, and historical records that tell the story of slaves with exemplary courage. Philosophers, poets, conductors of the Underground Railroad– names we may never learn or hear of, but a legacy that is inextinguishable.

There were crucial alliances forged between those in bonds and those who lived outside of the system. Deeply distraught, John Brown was one such contender. His was a gradual evolution from a venture businessman to an abolitionist who proposed and fought directly for an immediate obliteration of American slavery.

From Brown’s point of view, gradual reform was not enough. The inhumanity of slavery necessitated an immediate overthrow.

(Note: all hitherto accounts are cited from W.E.B Du Bois’s biography on John Brown, published in 1909.)

Beginnings

John Brown was born May 9th, 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut to Owen and Ruth Brown. John was the fourth of eight children. Owen, a man of strong religious convictions, was noted to have had prominent influence over his son, instilling conscious respect for native peoples in particular and sowing the seeds for John’s imminent anti-slavery position. (Owen himself was an abolitionist who founded the Western Reserve Anti-Slavery Society and organized the earliest way stations of the Underground Railroad at a time when it was hardly shaped.)

As a young man, John was remarkably self-willed. He was noted to frequently wander off into the wilderness by himself, and was generally self-satisfied and seldom yearned for the companionship of others.

Much of his childhood consisted of manual labor, chores, and tending to cattle. In his spare time, he educated himself through acquaintance with the Holy Bible. Reading and rereading the text in its entirety, he committed lengthy passages to memory and studied the depths of its poetry, history, and philosophy. To the young John, the Old and New Testaments became his essence– the one divine truth.

In the midst of the War of 1812, Owen Brown became a key meat contractor, and John was tasked with delivering the supplies to clients and beneficiaries. After a tiring and arduous journey of over 100 miles, John was given refuge and bedding at a landlord’s home. There, John witnessed the savage beating of a young slave– not much older than he. John, aghast at the cruelty, reflected on the essence of what he’d seen. Was this boy not a child of God, too? How, then, could such an abhorrent display of barbarism against this boy be permissible? As DuBois writes, these questions were not only being asked by John but by a million and a half bondmen across the country.

In 1819, aged 19, John began studying under Rev. Moses Hallock in Plainfield, Massachusetts, wherein he would prepare himself for enrollment in Amherst College. John was an ardent student and scholar, but money was, of course, scarce. John eventually dropped his studies. One can’t be all that certain that it was a massive disappointment to him, though, as he may have believed that he was just following the conventional path laid before all men, their fathers, and their fathers before them: become college-educated.

Instead, John took to trades. At age 20, John became engaged to Dianthe Lusk.

Confusion, Wandering, Scraping By

The next period in John’s life is rather bizarre and puzzling. First, he took to tanning as his craft. Next, he became a land surveyor– and a remarkable one at that. Next, he became a lumber dealer; a postmaster; wool-grower; stock-raiser; shepherd; and finally, a farmer. Suffice to say, John’s tendency to wander led him, albeit gently, down a path of utter chaos.

He and his wife, over the next period of 11 years (1821 – 1832), settled in various places across the United States– Hudson, Franklin, and Richfield, Ohio; Pennsylvania; New York; Massachusetts. This lifestyle must have been equally puzzling to his newborn children: six boys and one girl, all born over these 11 years.

The children have warm recollections of their father: his eldest son and daughter remark a scene where John held his children as they sang his favorite songs. Another recollection states that, although he had the tendency to be stern and strict, he was equally tender and kind– enough to make his daughter forget that he was ever stern.

Dianthe, John’s first wife, died in childbirth. She had brought up seven children with him, but two of them died very young.

In 1833, John went on to marry Mary Ann Day, a girl of just 17– just 5 years older than his eldest daughter. She bore him 13 children, 7 of whom died very young.

In total, John had 7 sons and 4 daughters. In one recollection, the family was described as simple, hard-working, and well-disciplined.

In 1836, John moved his family from Pennsylvania to Ohio. Alongside operating a tannery in the area, John became skilled in banking and credit, eventually becoming a bank director. John had amassed substantial wealth at the time– an estimated $20,000– but lost this fortune in the Panic of 1837.

Anti-Slavery Activities

In 1846, Brown and his business partner (Simon Perkins) moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, which at the was time recognized as a hotbed for the anti-slavery cause. It was there that Brown was exposed to the lectures of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth through his time as a parishioner at the Free Church.

In 1850, the United States Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which mandated that runaway slaves were to be hindered by legal authorities in free states and returned to their masters in the South. This prompted John to found the League of Gileadites, founded on the principles of militant slave protection and in reference to Mount Gilead of the Holy Bible. The League was tasked with assisting runaway slaves who entered Springfield, exhausting whatever violent means necessary to secure their freedom.

From 1854 to 1860, the territory of Kansas engaged in a bloody conflict between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces, an event referred to as Bleeding Kansas. Brown’s sons, now adults, resided in Kansas during this time– wherein they alerted their father that they were to be under attack from pro-slavery militants, unprepared for the siege. Brown thus journeyed out west.

Bleeding Kansas and the Events at Pottawatomie

Free-state settlers such as Brown were hopeful that Kansas could be admitted to the Union as a free state. Pro-slavery elements were resolute to prevent that. After a long winter, pro-slavery forces sought to seize the Kansas territory in full in 1856.

In a response to the sacking of Lawrence, Brown and his four sons– Frederick, Owen, Salmon, and Oliver– plus two others engaged in what history books now refer to as the Pottawatomie massacre. Brown and his allies shot and killed five pro-slavery settlers in front of their families on the night of May 24, 1856.

Over the next few years, Brown would participate in a variety of anti-slavery practices, including conferences, meetings, and even a grassroots-organized Constitutional Convention.

On December 20, 1859, Brown led and orchestrated his own raid, now known collectively as the Battle of the Spurs, in Holton, Kansas. Brown and allies were escorting 12 escaped slaves through Missouri and eventually Iowa, where they would be free– but ran into U.S. marshals and volunteers intending to claim Brown’s head for a $3,000 reward. John, as is inferred, had limitless enemies. The raid was successful, and 11 slaves were emancipated in the process. John was remarked to have “inspired fear into his enemies,” charging his force of only 21 towards a force of 45. Not a shot was fired, apparently, and their enemies panicked and retreated.

John’s trajectory continued, and he would travel to various states such as New York, Ohio, Massachusetts, and Connecticut to rally for the abolitionist cause and recruit whoever stood in solidarity. John continued to meet with famous leaders such as Harriet Tubman. Arriving in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, with aspirations for another raid, John, under the name of Isaac Smith, rented a farmhouse in which to garrison troops in nearby Maryland. Unfortunately, the numbers that Brown anticipated were not met. Nonetheless, the raid commenced.

Harpers Ferry

On October 16, 1859, Brown led 21 men (16 white and 5 black) from ages 21 to 49 in seizing the Harpers Ferry Armory. This large complex contained over 100,000 muskets and various supplies which Brown intended to distribute. Initially, there was little to no resistance– but soon, telegrams were sent out. One even reached President James Buchanan. Soon, U.S. Marines under the overall command of Colonel Robert E. Lee surrounded the fort. Overall, John’s men killed four and wounded nine– but their operation was dashed, and all were captured, killed, or escaped. Brown was captured and tried.

Trial

According to Virginia law, a month was to pass before Brown could be put to death. Brown received thousands upon thousands of letters and correspondence during this time and hastily tried to write back. Brown expressed sincere, religious convictions in his final days.

Brown’s capture and trial attracted national attention. Several of his letters were published in the press.

On December 2, 1859, John handed his jailor a note with these final words:

“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”

A Legacy

The chord Brown struck is incalculable. His strain of abolitionist thought advanced, and in many ways transformed, a school of theory and action that exposed the sham of gradual change. Brown maintained that the vile institution of slavery could not be done away with through prolonged reform– but by direct, participatory dismantling by the people– bonded and free.

I can put it no better than W.E.B DuBois himself when he said,

“He saw, he felt in his soul the wrong and danger of that most daring and insolent system of human repression known as American slavery. … He said, in 1859, “Now is the accepted time.” Now is the day to strike for a free nation. It will cost something– even blood and suffering, but it will not cost as much as waiting.”

How Long Must We Be Here? A Lament

Why? Why does America refuse to learn from its history? Why have the purveyors of peace and freedom allowed–no, ensured–that a second class citizenry exists amidst the empty prosperity and freedom enjoyed by those former Europeans? Why has Black outcry gone ignored? Why have Black minds been neglected?

When? When will America realize that its destiny is inextricably intertwined with Black destiny? That its fortunes depend on Black sacrifice and struggle? That its character is inseparable from Black influence? That a city on the hill cannot shine as long as so many inside the city’s walls aren’t allowed to see the Sun? 

How? How long must we be here before this nation rights its wrongs?

It lynched Nat Turner, skinned him, and sold his skin as souvenirs instead of abolishing the peculiar institution he protested.

It swindled Frederick Douglass, who after slavery’s conclusion, attempted to equalize the newly recognized Black “citizens.” His Freedmen’s Bank went bankrupt, and Black people were left without economic support. 

It convoluted the complexities of the thoughtful disagreements between Black intellectuals like Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois; Martin and Malcolm. They celebrate Martin for the one paragraph of the one speech they know, they love his devotion to peace. His devotion to Black people, though: they ignore. This is no accident, for if Martin was the oppressor-lover they paint him to be, they wouldn’t have bothered killing him. And Malcolm–the demon of the Civil Rights Movement–has been so disparaged that there are even Black boys and men who don’t appreciate him. 

It lauds Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, but the beautiful words of those writers fall upon deaf ears. It listens to Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Beyoncé–so quick to enjoy the artistic product of Black struggle, yet perpetually slow to address it.

Its outright bigotry has morphed into surreptitious hate. Now it restricts us from the ballot, removes our history from curriculum, throws our men in prison, tells our women that beauty is measured in distance to whiteness, economically castrates us, and even restricts our access to fresh food and air. The lessons of the generations have been ignored and discarded: those who refused to learn from their history are repeating it. 

The schizophrenic personality that is our nation continues to disrespect Black citizenship and abuse Black people, but the times are changing, and with every day that passes, the words of Langston Hughes become more and more present: 

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.