Smoketown history & heritage

 Photo by Josh Miller.

Photo by Josh Miller.


Smoketown, the oldest African-American neighborhood in Louisville, KY is a unique place rich in heritage and culture. It is an eclectic mix of individuals all coming together to embody the word community. In Smoketown, you don’t just find people, you find a community connected to their history. From Bates Memorial Baptist Church and Coke Memorial Church, both over 100 years old, to the soul food Shirley Mae’s Café, to Muhammad Ali's boxing training, to the site of the original Louisville Slugger bat company,

Smoketown today stands on the shoulders of generations who have called this place home over the past 150 years. Smoketown is a neighborhood one mile (1.6 km) southeast of downtown Louisville, Kentucky.

Smoketown has been a historically black neighborhood since the Civil War. It is the only neighborhood in the city that has had such a continuous presence.

The name apparently comes from the large number of (smoke-producing) kilns in the area during its early brick-making days. An 1823 newspaper advertises a brickyard in the area as part of the farm and residence of "the late Mark Lampton", after whom Lampton Street is probably named. 9 of 20 brickyards in the city had Smoketown addresses according to an 1871 Caron's directory, although none remained by 1880, as apparently the supply of clay from under the neighborhood had run out. The abandoned, water-filled clay pits may have given rise to the name "Frogtown" for the neighborhood, which appeared in print in 1880.

Some residential development by whites of German ancestry began in the 1850s, but due to the arrival of thousands of freed slaves who moved there from various parts of rural Kentucky after the Civil War, it was solidly African American by 1870. A streetcar line was extended down Preston Street to Kentucky in 1865, spurring growth.

With its shotgun houses and narrow streets, Smoketown was a densely populated area with a population of over 15,000 by 1880. African American property ownership was rare, with most living in properties rented from whites.

By the 1960s the area had high crime and unemployment rates, causing massive population loss. Many of the old shotgun houses have been razed and housing projects built in their place. Albert E. Meyzeek Middle School is located in the neighborhood. Presbyterian Community Center is located in the Smoketown neighborhood. Bates Memorial Missionary Baptist Church is located in Smoketown. Smoketown is bounded by Broadway, CSX railroad tracks, Kentucky Street, and I-65. Since the 1950s, Smoketown has been massively depopulated. As of 2000, the population of Smoketown was 2,116, a decrease of over 38% from 1990 [1].

Revitalization in Smoketown

In May 2011, Louisville received a $22 million federal Hope VI award that will allow the demolition of the deteriorating Sheppard Square housing project, replacing it with new, mixed-income housing. In Mayor Fischer's Budget Address of May 26, 2011, he said; "You all heard the exciting news this week about Sheppard Square. The project will have a value of $157 million over the next decade. Our budget includes $1.6 million to help integrate that new development into the surrounding neighborhood. That will not only make the area a better place to live, but will set the table for the private businesses that settle into any healthy neighborhood".[1]

On July 12, 2012, Construction of nine new homes has recently begun near the site of the former Sheppard Square housing development. The nine homes consist of eight in the 500 block of East Breckinridge and one on South Shelby Street.

On December 10, 2012, construction began between Hancock, Jacob, Finzer and Jackson Streets, on a $100 million redevelopment of a new, and revitalized mixed-income Sheppard Square housing neighborhood, with a completion date of December 2015.