30 Days of Kentucky Archaeology


Anne Tobbe Bader and David W. Schatz

Corn Island Archaeology

When it comes to matters of social justice, it’s a challenging and critical time we live in. We in Louisville, Kentucky have experienced our share of unrest with the killing of Breonna Taylor two years ago.  Amid this, archaeologists from Corn Island Archaeology found themselves conducting the largest urban archaeological project to date in the City. The gathering area for some of the protests was along Jefferson Street, where our project site, the Beecher Terrace residential complex, was located. We were daily witnesses to the pain and the outrage as this turmoil unfolded. It was-and is-difficult to remain silent on this matter. So just what has this to do with archaeology? How can archaeologists contribute to rectifying the repercussions of social injustice?

Over the last two decades, archaeologists have been investigating downtown Louisville, one neighborhood at a time. The Beecher Terrace Archaeological Project is the latest such endeavor. Located just south of the Falls of the Ohio River, Beecher Terrace lies along the symbolic yet very real Ninth Street Divide, so-called because it separates the predominantly African American low-income neighborhoods of west Louisville from the downtown area and the more affluent, largely white communities of the east side. Built in 1939, Beecher Terrace was the second public housing complex in Louisville constructed for low-income African Americans. Despite renovations in the 1980s, the complex turned 80 years old, and had fallen into disrepair.  It was recently demolished to make way for new housing.  Prior to the demolition, archaeology was required.

The archaeological project explored the footprint of a 12-city block community within the greater Russell neighborhood. Formerly a neighborhood of mixed-race composition, the area is currently comprised of predominantly Black residents, most with deep roots to the neighborhood. The archaeological project began with extensive, year-to-year archival research. As a result of this research, it was learned that the Black community had been displaced – not once, but twice – to urban renewal since the end of the Civil War.  A major multi-faceted mitigation effort is underway to ensure that the story of the community that was most recently displaced (1939-2019) is preserved for generations to come.  But, like so many similar stories in major cities across the country, it has fallen to archaeology to restore the history of the earlier community (1870-1939) which has been long been lost to time.

This earlier community had its roots in the 1830s but was most densely occupied right out of the Civil War through the 1920s. Educated Blacks from multiple professions arrived in Louisville from the northeast and elsewhere to serve the Black community following Emancipation.  These people had been freed but were denied basic social services available to other segments of the population, namely native-born white Kentuckians, European immigrants, and eastern European Jews. With the influx of the Black professionals, an African American community was built that was self-sustaining.  The individual stories of success among this group of Black men and women are numerous and are particularly outstanding for the period. Despite the mixed racial and ethnic composition of the early neighborhood, it was not truly integrated however, and the hearts of the general community remained hardened against the Blacks.

A series of natural disasters fell upon Louisville along with devasting floods in the 1880s and a powerful tornado in the spring of 1890 destroyed many of the buildings in this early neighborhood. The nationally felt financial crises of the 1890s, topped by the Panic of 1893, contributed to a series of events that sounded a death knell for the community. The community never recovered.  The crisis was felt more by the Black residents than the white immigrants.  Between 1900 and 1910, the white population had largely fled. By the 1920s-1930s, the area had become severely economically depressed, and in the 1930s, a portion of the neighborhood was cleared to make room for the Beecher Terrace residential complex.  A perusal through the newspapers of the time makes it difficult to escape the conclusion that racial prejudice also played a role in the decline in the neighborhood. Newspaper accounts demonstrate an intolerance and a decided campaign against the Black community leaders. Headlines were sensationalized and facts were misrepresented with the obvious intent to slander Black politicians and prevent their elections in City positions.

The Beecher Terrace Archaeological Project began late in 2016, and fieldwork wrapped up in 2021. The archaeological strategy was to investigate a sample of the residential lots and to target those at which a single family lived for an extended period. This allowed a high degree of confidence between the archaeological contexts and the families that created them. The archaeology investigated residential lots of all races and ethnicities, but especially those of the Black community. Focusing on the rear yards, nearly 1,000 features (privies, cisterns, foundations, etc.) were documented.  As the analysis continues with the materials from the features, it is expected that patterns will emerge to enlighten us regarding the lifeways of the early freed Black community in Louisville following the Civil War.

From the beginning, the Beecher Terrace Archaeological Project was truly collaborative and totally transparent. Throughout the long process, the message from the Russell community has been very clear…they have ownership of this archaeological project. This is, after all, their neighborhood. This is their story, and the Russell community demanded public involvement in its telling. They encouraged public participation in the archaeological excavations. They expect the recovered artifacts to be placed and interpreted in public displays within the neighborhood, and they required that educational curriculums be developed for the local schools.

This project HAD to be collaborative. For after all, it is not the role of white archaeologists trained in a colonial paradigm to tell the story of a long displaced and forgotten Black community. This project required the knowledge, insights, traditions, family histories, and experiences of first-hand struggles and successes of the people who lived at the site from 1939 to 2017, whose parents and grandparents lived there before them. This story is about loss of community over the years and needs to be told by the Black community. Archaeology can contribute facts, and information, and context, but cannot recreate the soul of that neighborhood.

So, what can we do as archaeologists?  In a spirit of common pride for our City, we can try to be a force for healing and not divisiveness. We can publicly acknowledge that this Black community existed and was twice displaced. We can own the fact that these people were not treated fairly historically. We can celebrate the stories of the individual and community successes of the people who lived in this neighborhood. In terms of the individuals who worked so hard to advance Black rights so long ago, we can Say Their Names! 

As privileged white researchers, we must also recognize the limitations and inherent biases to our research. To give back to this community which has been hurting, we must drop any façade of academic superiority as well as our sense of ownership of the project and involve those whose heritage we profess to study. We can encourage young Black students to become collaborators in our work. We can use this project as an example to involve descendant communities in future archaeological projects.

We want to express our appreciation to the individuals, agencies, organizations, community leaders, and archaeologists who have collectively worked diligently to develop a plan that met not only scientific archaeological objectives, but those of the community in which the project abides.


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