400 Block East Ormsby/Camp Block Watch

Smoketown Neighborhood History

Smoketown History

Louisville’s Smoketown neighborhood is a compact and cohesive residential, commercial, and industrial enclave.  Located just east of Louisville’s central business district, it is bounded to the north by Broadway, to the south by Kentucky St., to the east by Beargrass Creek and the CSX Railroad, and to the west by Floyd St. It is Louisville’s only surviving neighborhood that reflects the continuous presence of African Americans before the Civil War.

The name apparently came from the large number of brick kilns in the area that produced great volumes of smoke. Brick-making started early. An advertisement for the sale of the farm and residence of “the late Mark Lampton” (Louisville Public Advertiser, April 16, 1823) noted that included was a brickyard and utensils as well as up to 150,000 bricks.  The advertisement also stated that the buyer could hire “Negro men well skilled in the brickmaking business.”  Lampton St., south of and parallel to Broadway, probably takes its name from Mark Lampton.

In 1841 the City Council adopted a resolution introduced by John J. Jacob that digging in Prather St. (Broadway) west of Preston St. be stopped.  The mayor was directed to require those responsible “to restore the street to its original grade” (Council Minutes, March 29, 1841).  Carson’s Louisville City Directory for 1871 listed nine brickyards concentrated in the Smoketown area out of 20 in the city.  The others were scattered in various locations.  By 1880 none were left in Smoketown as now defined, although two were nearby in the Fort Hill and Germantown Neighborhoods.  Apparently the clay that lay under Smoketown was mined out.  By that year a portion of Smoketown had acquired the name Frogtown.  It was located around Lampton and Jackson streets and the name may reflect abandoned, water-filled clay pits that attracted frogs (Courier Journal, Jan. 5, 1880, 4).

Some residential development in Smoketown began in the 1850’s by whites of German ancestry.  By war’s end freed slaves settled there, with an African American community firmly established by 1870. Smoketown developed as a thriving business and industrial center in part because of the opening of a streetcar line on Preston St. to Kentucky St. in 1865.  Beargrass Creek, an important water source, also attracted industry.  Tobacco processing plants were major employers.  While whites performed skilled labor and held managerial positions, Smoketown’s African American residents were employed in low-paying, labor-intensive jobs.  An exception to this pattern was tiny enclave of African American-owned businesses on Preston St. near College St., where two blacksmiths and a wagon maker’s shop were located.

Because Smoketown’s white residents were more affluent than their black neighbors, they had the means to build and own more substantial brick and frame houses.  African Americans by contrast lived in modest rental housing owned by whites and situated in densely settled blocks and minor streets and alleys.  For both races the shotgun house was the most prevalent building type.

Because of the economic and social climate in Smoketown during its early years, examples of African American property ownership were rare.  There were, however, a few exceptions to the rule.  Washington Spradling Jr., one of Louisville’s most prominent African American citizens, owned a large amount of rental real estate in the area.  In another instance, a group of enterprising African Americans built simple shotgun houses on land leased from whites.  They later lost ownership when the panic of 1873 wiped out their savings and they were unable to pay their rent.

Smoketown has historically been home to many churches and institutions that have provided important social services in the community for generations.  Most notable were the Booker T. Washington School (built in 1874 as the Eastern Colored School and one of Louisville’s earliest schools for blacks), the Presbyterian Colored Mission (begun with the founding of Hope Mission in 1898 and Grace Mission in 1899), Eastern Colored Branch Library (a Carnegie-endowed library for African Americans that opened in 1914), and Sheppard Square Housing Project (built in 1942 as segregated war worker housing and named for William Sheppard, the first African American missionary to the Congo).

In time the industrial base left the area.  Housing developments replaced the old single-family units. Smoketown has experienced a renaissance in recent years as neighborhood groups have emerged, businesses have relocated to the area, houses have been built, and older homes have been restored.  In 1996 select residential portions of the Smoketown neighborhood most closely associated with African American settlement were listed on the National Register of Historic Places for their historic significance.

See Louisville Survey East Report, City of Louisville Development Cabinet, 1979; Henry Clay Weeden, Weeden’s History of the Colored People of Louisville (Louisville 1897); George C. Wright, Life Behind a Veil (Baton Rouge 1865); Janet E. Kemp, Report of the Tenement House Commission of Louisville (Louisville 1909).
Joanne Weeter
Posted by popcorn on 02/20/2011
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