• Center For Neighborhoods

Historically Black Neighborhoods in Louisville: Parkland | Part One: Early History

In honor of Black History Month, Center for Neighborhoods has authored a series of posts about historically Black neighborhoods in Louisville. Our first post featured the neighborhood of James Taylor–Jacobs School. This post is the first in a series about the neighborhood of Parkland.

The neighborhood of Parkland is rich in stories, places, and people. Layers of history create a neighborhood so significant, the city of Louisville recognizes Parkland’s core block—South 28th Street from Virginia Avenue to Dumesnil Street—as a Historic Preservation district. There is so much more to this neighborhood than a boundary on a map, however, and questions emerge when the neighborhood is explored. What did 28th Street look like 200 years ago? Who built the tall, impressive buildings? Where did all the street names come from? What did people do in Parkland when Louisville—the city—was still a mule-drawn cart ride away?

Parkland Residents have done work to collect historical documents, archival photographs, resident conversations, and interviews that have helped inform the guide that this post is based on. It is a brief telling of what others have told before in greater detail. For more details on sources, and for tips on how to find out additional information and sources for the numbered cited sources, please see the back page of the guide.

Foundation of Parkland

Today, 28th Street is a thoroughfare connecting schools, homes, commerce, manufacturing, and recreation. About 200 years ago, in 1817, the same path would have cut through farmland pastures and crossed wooded streams. There is a bench in Shawnee park, and a street name or two nearby, commemorating the earliest inhabitants of what would become the Parkland neighborhood. Even up through the 1850s, what is now 28th Street passed through “more of a wilderness than anything else,” [1] and it was 1874 before anyone thought of adding streets, houses, or more people.

Morris–Southwick Development Company began subdividing and selling 342 acres of land, calling it Parkland. [2] “Its breathtaking atmosphere of beautiful trees, ponds, gentle hills, and acres of colorful wildflowers naturally made it one of the most desired [new developments]. A mule-drawn car, later trolley cars, and ‘steam cars’ [made] trips [to and from] the new suburb in Parkland even more convenient.” [3] What is now Dumesnil Street was once Orleans Avenue, and where livestock used to meander, people began to build. The original homesteaders in the area were few in number, mostly of German descent but with some African American families settling as well. Street names like Catalpa, Hemlock, Beech, Olive, Hemlock, and Hazel—names that remain even today—honored the living trees that grew in lush groves all around, evoking an image of stability and tranquility in the minds of those crammed together on Louisville’s congested blocks, and further encouraging new settlers.

By the 1880s, development was thriving. A mix of wealthy and more modest-income families called the settlement home. Elegant and grand houses were built along Virginia Avenue and Catalpa Street, while smaller cottages lined adjacent side streets.

New businesses cropped up to serve the new community. Residents elected mayors, tradesmen set up shop, and farmland became village. The energy in this new community burned bright enough to overcome both a national economic depression (in the 1870s) and a devastatingly fierce tornado in 1890.

On March 27, “a tornado touched down in Parkland near ‘Thirty-second Street and Gibson Lane’ (Southern Avenue). From there it moved eastward ‘over the Dulaney farm’ (Victory Park) ‘to Twenty Second Street and Garland,’ and from there past ‘Twenty-first and Howard Streets’ and on ‘to Eighteenth Street,’ just south of where it intersects ‘with Maple Street.’" [4]

In the wake of destruction, the city of Louisville annexed the Parkland subdivision to support rebuilding efforts, but after just a few years the neighborhood was welcoming the new century with even more stunning homes, vital businesses, thriving churches and strong schools.

Homecoming Week

In 1874, Parkland received its first charter and became an independently thriving municipality, though its boundaries then were wider than any lines on today’s map. By 1881, the first black families had started to erect prominent homes along Orleans (now Dumesnil Street) and Virginia Avenues. During this time of Parkland’s transition from farmland owned by a few wealthy landowners to neatly plotted homesteads inhabited by both moderate and wealthy transplants, the area held a few different names depending on who was asked. “Very early . . . [it was] known as Homestead, Kentucky,” but then there were other names, like “South Parkland” and “Parkland Subdivision.” “It was called ‘Needmore’ by the colored residents,” but “colored folks from up in town . . . called it ‘Little Africa.’”

One of the original black families to move to Parkland were the Cotters. In the 1870s, Joseph S. Cotter’s family left their lives as slaves on a Bardstown, Kentucky, plantation to start anew in Parkland’s growing, and promising, township. Forty years later, in the early 20th century, the whole place had become a vibrant hub, inhabited mostly by African American tradesmen, preachers, teachers, homemakers, small farmers, and families. This period of Parkland’s history, now about 100 years ago, is captured in memory thanks to “Homecoming Week,” a commemoration celebration that drew regional attention in the summer of 1916. Joseph S. Cotter, the principal of the neighborhood’s S. Coleridge–Taylor school, organized a week-long celebration to commemorate 25 years of Parkland.

At the time of “Homecoming Week” there were “700 colored homes, six churches, seven groceries, one drug store, owned by A.J. Duncan, president of the Parkland Improvement Club and Mayor of ‘Little Africa,’” [6] as well as “five bricklayers, six carpenters, nine concrete workers, one blacksmith, two paperhangers, three contractors and builders, three plasterers, two ice men, two farmers, and two doctors.”

“Homecoming Week” was about more than celebrating the health and prosperity of the predominantly black community; the Parkland Improvement Club also wanted to generate interest and support for modernizing the area with improvements like smooth “cinder” pathways, mailboxes, and lamp posts. In 1916, Parkland and Louisville were connected via paved roadways and even streetcars, but this was a collective effort around beautifying the little township.

Read the full guide here, which includes information about Parkland’s architecture and some of its most famous residents.

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Photos, written documents, and personal accounts telling more about Parkland’s history found in a number of places:

  • Filson Historical Society

  • University of Louisville Archives and Special Collections

  • Ethel King’s book, “From Parkland to the River’s Edge”

  • Louisville’s Parkland Historic Preservation District guiding document

  • Louisville’s adopted Parkland Neighborhood Plan (2017)

[1] Alfred W. Harris, P.S.,P.T., History of the Progressive Spirit of Parkland Lodge No. 638, F. & A. M. 1888-1918 (unpublished, Louisville, 1918), Filson Club, Louisville

[2] Ethel I. King. From Parkland to the River’s Edge. (Peter’s Publications, 1990) p. 1

[3] Ibid. p. X

[4] Ibid. p. 31

[5] Joseph S. Cotter. Twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Founding of Colored Parkland or “Little Africa”; Louisville, KY 1891-1916.

[6] Ibid. p. 12 [7] Parkland Neighborhood Plan, 2017

[8] Ethel I. King. From Parkland to the River’s Edge. (Peter’s Publications, 1990) p. 1