Preserving Legacies: Filson Historical Society’s African American History Initiative

Once again, we’re thrilled to delve into the enriching conversation that unfolded on a recent episode of ‘Russell on the Move!’ The episode, dated February 8, 2024, titled ‘Preserving Legacies, Celebrating Stories: A Conversation on the African American History initiatives at the Filson Historical Society,’ was a captivating exploration of Black history and community engagement. Hosted by Kevin Fields, Sr., and Herbert Johnson, the episode featured esteemed guests Elmer Lucille Allen and Dr. Patrick Lewis of the Filson Historical Society. Together, they delved into the Filson’s commitment to preserving and narrating African American history, offering profound insights into heritage, community empowerment, and educational initiatives.

An Introduction: Personally and Professionally

Allow this blog post to serve as a conduit, channeling the voices and narratives shared by the guests. Elmer Lucille Allen, a distinguished chemist, artist, community activist and local historian, alongside Dr. Patrick Lewis, a dedicated historian, illuminated the episode with their personal journeys and professional endeavors. Their passion for storytelling and legacy preservation set the stage for a compelling dialogue centered on the Filson Historical Society and its African American History Initiative (AAHI).

The Filson Historical Society: Mission, Goals, and Milestones

Established in 1884, the Filson Historical Society has been a bastion of Kentucky and Ohio Valley’s rich history. With a mission to collect, preserve, and present the region’s cultural heritage, the Filson has reached numerous milestones in its journey. One significant achievement is the inception of the African American History Initiative, signaling a steadfast commitment to honoring Black history and contributions.

The African American History Initiative (AAHI)

Dr. Lewis eloquently articulated the AAHI’s primary objective: to ensure the preservation and dissemination of narratives often marginalized in mainstream historical narratives. Through meticulous research, exhibitions, and educational programs, the initiative sheds light on the individual stories and collective experiences of African Americans in the region, fostering a deeper understanding of their legacies. The AAHI is a dedicated effort to preserve, document, and share the rich and often overlooked narratives of African Americans in Kentucky and the Ohio Valley region. Established with a mission to amplify Black voices and experiences, the AAHI encompasses meticulous research, dynamic exhibitions, educational programs, and community collaborations. By shining a spotlight on individual stories and collective contributions, the initiative seeks to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of African American history, enriching the broader narrative of the region’s cultural heritage. Through its endeavors, the AAHI aims to bridge historical gaps, challenge stereotypes, and promote inclusivity, ensuring that the diverse tapestry of African American experiences remains an integral part of Kentucky’s historical discourse.

Community Collaborations Amplifying Black Voices

Central to the Filson’s ethos is its collaborative ethos. By forging partnerships with local organizations like the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage and Roots 101, the Filson extends the reach of Black voices and stories. These collaborations serve as catalysts for community engagement and empowerment, enriching the AAHI’s impact manifold. In this podcast, the vital role of community collaborations rests on the shared belief that preserving Black history is a communal responsibility and a foundation for a more equitable future. Ms. Allen, renowned for her historical contributions, underscored the significance of young people engaging with institutions like the Filson Historical Society to explore African American history. Her dedication is evident through her donation of personal artifacts and family history, revealing the transformative impact of individual and institutional partnerships. Dr. Lewis emphasized that community-driven research projects not only enrich the historical narrative but also ensure that the diverse stories within the Black community are recorded and honored. The Filson’s initiatives, including the African American History endowment and their collaboration with regional organizations, exemplify their commitment to inclusivity and accessibility. These efforts foster innovation and help cement a collective memory that acknowledges and celebrates Black contributions throughout history. The episode conveyed the central message that by connecting and supporting each other in endeavors like historical research, cultural preservation, and educational programming, communities can uplift Black Voices and stitch a more comprehensive and representative tapestry of the American story.

Addressing Historical Language Sensitivities

Sensitive discussions during the episode touched upon historical language within the Filson’s collections. Striking a delicate balance between preserving historical accuracy and respecting contemporary sensibilities, the Filson diligently updates language to eliminate potentially offensive terms while preserving the integrity of historical records. Dr. Lewis and Ms. Allen underscored how the Filson Historical Society addresses the nuances of historical language and race-related sensitivities in a number of ways as part of their mission to collect, preserve, and share the history and culture of Kentucky and the Ohio valleys. Reportedly, the Filson emphasizes lifelong learning and community engagement. They work on building a community of people who come together to learn, whether through research or participation in their numerous programs. Dr. Lewis specifically focuses on understanding Kentucky’s transition from a slave state to a Jim Crow state and accompanying topics like the suppression of black political power. The presence of such historical facts in Kentucky’s background underlines the importance of correctly addressing history within the Society. The Filson actively engages in updating their catalog materials to respect the humanity of individuals documented within, balancing the need to protect people from encountering racially abusive language with the challenge of maintaining an accurate documentary record. They place a strong emphasis on community-driven research projects, hoping to house the resulting archives at the Filson for permanent record, demonstrating a commitment to advancing racial justice and preserving African American history in ways that are accessible and respectful.

Impactful Collections and Resources Focusing on African American History

The episode spotlighted several collections and resources at the Filson that serve as invaluable tools for understanding African American history. Contributions from individuals like Elmer Lucille Allen, who shared family artifacts, and Patrick Lewis’s research on Union army officers and slavery, offer poignant insights into the African American experience. The Society boasts a wealth of collections and resources dedicated to African American history that provide profound insights and educational opportunities for the community. Among these treasured compilations are Ms. Allen’s collection, which includes personal artifacts and artwork of local African American icon Elmer Lucille Allen. This collection offers a unique perspective on her life and contributions as the first African American chemist at Brown-Forman in 1966 and her extensive community work, including her associations with the Chickasaw Book Committee and her artwork that reflects the African American experience in Louisville. Another remarkable collection is that of Samuel Plato, an African American architect who left a significant impact on the architectural landscape, with records that offer a glimpse into his professional achievements and creative legacy. The Helen Humes Collection constitutes the artifacts and memorabilia related to the renowned jazz and blues singer from Louisville, Helen Humes, providing insights into her career and impact on music history. Additionally, the Filson’s online and physical resources aid family research and delve into historical aspects of racial segregation, such as redlining in neighborhoods. With its commitment to enriching the community’s knowledge and preserving historical narratives, the Filson Historical Society continues to serve as an invaluable repository for these impactful collections and resources.

Adapting to Social Movements and Racial Justice

Recent social movements, including local the civil unrest of 2020, have influenced the Filson’s approach to presenting Black history. Dr. Lewis mentioned the importance of being equipped citizens who understand their community to support various causes. His historical research focuses on Kentucky’s transition from a slave state to a Jim Crow state, examining the measures used in the state to maintain political power in the hands of enslavers and deny civil rights post-slavery. Discussions about how different states reacted during reconstruction highlighted the lack of a period of black political power in Kentucky, unlike in the deep south. He mentions that these topics are especially relevant in light of recent legislation challenging the Voting Rights Act and historical tactics such as poll taxes designed to disenfranchise black voters. Lewis further explained that while the Filson’s broader mission to collect, preserve, and share history has remained consistent, their understanding of this mission has expanded to include a wider range of perspectives, emphasizing the value of a community committed to learning and supporting each other. Elmer Lucille Allen’s contributions to the Filson, including donating artifacts from her family and the community, demonstrate an effort to ensure that these histories are preserved and accessible. Overall, the Filson’s approach to Black history is becoming more inclusive and reflective of the need to understand and address historical and contemporary issues of race and justice. Through dynamic exhibitions and programming, such as thought-provoking art installations depicting themes of racial justice, the AAHI remains responsive to evolving societal dynamics, amplifying the voices of the marginalized.

Future Prospects and Evolutions of the AAHI

Looking ahead, the Filson has ambitious plans to further enrich the AAHI. With a substantial endowment earmarked for the initiative, the Society aims to engage the community in collaborative research projects, expand programming, and enhance accessibility to Black history resources. As Dr. Patrick Lewis assumes the role of the Filson’s new president and CEO in 2025, a renewed commitment to equity and inclusivity will guide the initiative’s evolution.

In conclusion, ‘Russell on the Move!’ not only provided a platform for dialogue but also ignited a call to action. It urged listeners to embrace and contribute to the preservation and dissemination of African American heritage. The podcast underscored the transformative power of collective remembrance and educational endeavors in fortifying the narrative of Black history in Louisville and beyond. Through initiatives like the AAHI, the Filson Historical Society continues to champion the enduring legacy of African Americans, ensuring that their stories resonate for generations to come.

Click below to listen to the entire podcast: