“Old Walnut Street” & African American Businesses

By Latisha Reynolds

Walnut Street

Walnut Street in 1942. Caufield & Shook Collection.

If you are a Louisville local, you may have heard of the old Walnut Street business district (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard). West Walnut Street from 6th to 13th Streets was a business, social, and cultural gathering place for African Americans. Beginning in the late 1800’s, the first African American businesses started to form on and around Walnut Street, and it grew to include over 150 businesses. The area served a vital need during segregation, and thrived especially from the 1920’s to the 1950’s. Although this area was demolished during urban renewal, it holds a special place in the hearts and memories of many African Americans in the Louisville community. I personally remember my great grandmother making references to restaurants, nightclubs, and other businesses on Walnut Street when I was a kid.

Mammoth

Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance Company, UofL Photographic Archives.

The UofL Libraries have books, photos, articles, and other archival materials that chronicle the rich history of this area. For a great summary of the Old Walnut Street business district check out the Encyclopedia of Louisville. The section Walnut Street African American Businesses in the encyclopedia discusses the history of the area, how it expanded over the years, and how it was impacted by events such as segregation, desegregation, urban renewal, World War II, and the Great Depression. Speaking of the growth, it mentions that as early as 1860 there were two African American businesses on Walnut Street (a boarding house and a barber shop) interspersed with other businesses and residences. By the 1900’s the number of black-owned businesses grew to 24, and that number grew to over 150 by the 1930’s. The growth continued through the 40’s, but began to decline in the 1950’s. Stated reasons for the decline and ultimate closing of the business district include: desegregation (many black residents took opportunities to shop in areas that were previously prohibited), the migration of many white residents to the suburbs, and finally urban renewal which later wiped out most of the businesses and resident homes in the 1960’s.

First Standard Bank

First Standard Bank, Louisville, Ky., Caufield & Shook Collection.

The businesses that dotted old Walnut Street included those for everyday needs like restaurants, churches, banks, insurance companies, news and printing services, barber shops, salons, gas stations, independent doctors, lawyers, real estate agents, and more. However, the area was well known for the entertainment, including several theaters, nightclubs, and other gathering places. Clubs like the Top Hat drew crowds from out of town, as well as local black and white residents who came to see the top jazz musicians of the time. Derby was a popular time on Walnut Street!

Theaters such as the Lyric, the Grand, and the Lincoln were also noted as popular entertainment spots. Other businesses included: Mammoth Life and Accident Insurance Co., First Standard Bank, Bowman’s Apothecary, The Louisville Leader, The Louisville Defender (Ekstrom Library microfilm newspapers- 2nd floor), and White Printing and News Service, to name a few. (Encyclopedia of Louisville, African American Businesses)

There are several materials located in Archives & Special Collections (Ekstrom Library, LL17) that discuss the history, people, and businesses of old Walnut Street. Below are some selected materials.

  • Blacks: Walnut Street Business District – “Newspaper clippings and miscellaneous printed material.”
  • Moorman, Frank., Sr., Scrapbook, 1879-1976 (microfilm) – “Frank Moorman was the grandson of a slave. He was born in Daviess County, Kentucky. He established the Central Drug Company at the corner of Sixth and Walnut (now Muhammad Ali Boulevard) Streets in Louisville with Dr. J.C. McDonald in 1932. With McDonald, he opened the F&M Service Station at the corner of Eighth and Walnut Streets in 1937. The service station eventually became Frank’s Super Service, a franchise of the Standard Oil Company.
  • City Directories: Selected city directories list African American business owners on Walnut Street.
  • Photos of Walnut Street/Muhammad Ali are also available in various collections.
  • For additional print resources about African Americans and old Walnut Street check out the following:
    • Bruce M. Tyler. African American Life in Louisville, Ekstrom Library African American collection (2nd floor) and other areas.  Call number: F459.L89 N476 1998.
    • John E. Kleber. Encyclopedia of Louisville.  Ekstrom Library Reference book stacks; Archives  & other UofL Libraries, Call number F459.L85 E54 2001.
    • Mervin Aubespin, Kenneth Clay, J Blaine Hudson. Two Centuries of Black Louisville: A photographic History. Ekstrom Library, Browsing Collection (1st floor) and other areas. Call number: F459.L89 N429 2011.


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