By Tom Owen, Archivist for Regional History, Archives & Special Collections
Howard Breckinridge of Plano, Texas, a longtime friend of our Archives and Special Collections and a fountain of information about West Louisville history, told me that his eighty-eight-year-old cousin James Everett also had keen memories of Louisville’s African American community in the 1940s. Everett and his parents were among the first residents of the brand-new Beecher Terrace public housing project on Muhammad Ali, and he spent his entire youth enjoying the bustle of the ‘Old Walnut Street’ business district. I jumped at the chance to capture those memories on tape since Beecher Terrace is being totally redone as a mixed-income community. At the same time, the wisdom of the destruction by Urban Renewal of that segregated commercial district immediately west of downtown in the late 1950s is being reopened for debate.
The problem was James Everett, an Indianapolis resident, was in poor health and under Covid protocols it was unwise for me to travel. Heather Fox, director of ASC’s Oral History Center, stepped into the breech, downloading an app to my cell phone that allowed me to record an almost one-hour interview with James Everett which as a digital file has been added to our massive collection of 2000 oral histories, gathered since the early 1970s and including many from the African American community.
In our interview last July, Everett recalled the family move to Beecher Terrace when he was eight as a God-send—a new comfortable home with central heat, indoor plumbing, and hot and cold running water which trumped in every respect their former rental in Louisville’s Black Hill neighborhood at Eleventh and Magnolia. He also remembered ‘Beecher’ as a safe, pleasant community where children were admonished by other parents if they got out-out-of-line and there were plenty of things for kids to do. For him, the lengthy ‘Old Walnut’ business district, which bordered his home on the south and stretched from Sixth to Thirteenth and beyond, offered a potpourri of possibilities: a favored donut shop, movie theaters, cleaners and tailor shops, pawn shops, dry goods and drug stores, cafes, and taverns and much more. (Some of the venues were Black owned.) At one point, James tells how as a teenager he snuck into the locally famous Top Hat Nightclub without being ejected by Frankie Maxwell, the watchful manager. On Derby Day, he said, ‘Old Walnut’s’ sidewalks were filled with fashionably dressed visitors—some not even headed to the track—and a large parade filled the street on Thanksgiving Day prior to an annual Central High School rivalry football game.
One especially warm memory involved Mr. Davidson, James’ teacher at Central, who met eight or ten male students in the neighborhood and led them on a lengthy Saturday hike through Downtown Louisville, across the Second Street bridge, and down the Indiana shore to the Falls of the Ohio. Praising this youth mentorship, Everett told of wading into the shallow pools at the Falls to catch carp with his hands and stopping for lunch on the way back to Beecher Terrace. The last third of our interview is a chronicle of James Everett’s years in the Air Force, his brief return to Louisville, and a permanent move to Indianapolis where, after a decade of job changes, he was employed by Ford Motor Company twenty-eight years until his retirement.
Sadly, a couple of weeks ago, Howard Breckinridge texted that James Everett died on November 13. How happy I am that Heather Fox made possible a phone interview that will be preserved in our ASC Oral History Collection. Now we hold forever the memories of a childhood and youth of an elderly Indianapolis resident spent in the 1940s in Louisville’s Beecher Terrace housing complex along that once-vibrant ‘Old Walnut’ business district.