Decades after merger, Louisville struggles to maintain Black political representation

They feared merging the City of Louisville with whiter and wealthier suburban cities would make Black communities an even smaller minority. That would have big implications for political representation and the ability of Black residents to get their local government to focus on issues specific to their communities, they believed.

Now, in 2023, as Louisville’s neighborhoods become less racially segregated, politicians and activists are concerned Black political representation could erode even further.

The political power equation

In the 1980s, there were two unsuccessful attempts to merge Louisville and Jefferson County: one in ‘82 and another in ‘83.

At that time, Donna Purvis was a student at the University of Louisville who had grown up in the West End and she wanted to get involved in politics. She and her best friend got in touch with the local NAACP chapter, which was one of many Black voices in the City of Louisville opposed to merger.

Purvis and Weathers-Washington spent hours door-knocking in West End neighborhoods.

“We talked to them about the effects of the merger,” Purvis recalled. “How merger would dilute the African American power in city government. How merger would take away our norm.” 

Those concerns, about Black Louisvillians losing their political representation, would be a focal point for critics when merger came up again in 2000.

Rev. Louis Coleman Jr., one of Louisville’s most prominent civil rights leaders, attended a special meeting of the Kentucky House State Government Committee in Feb. 2000. He and other residents and community leaders were given two minutes each to speak.

Coleman told state legislators that “even a blind man can see” merger would advantage wealthier communities at the expense of working class residents.

“Political schemes designed to weaken the voting strength of African Americans and poor whites are not only unethical, immoral, they are un-American,” he said.

Coleman said he was concerned that merging the city and county would dilute the Black vote and make electing a Black mayor all but impossible. Other groups opposed to the merger shared these concerns, including the NAACP and the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

The late state Rep. Darryl Owens, who at the time of merger was a Jefferson County commissioner, penned op-eds in the Courier Journal opposing merger. He also commissioned at least two third-party studies questioning the claims that merger would be good for economic development.

Raoul Cunningham was the NAACP’s state voter-empowerment chairman at the time. He said in an interview this summer that the question of diminishing Black political power was simple math.

Going into the 2000 vote, Louisville’s 12-member Board of Aldermen had four Black representatives. They represented districts where a majority of residents, or close to it, were also Black. Black representatives also made up a third of the Jefferson County Fiscal Court.

The new Metro Council, meanwhile, would have 26 seats. And the state and local officials backing merger were promising Black residents just five districts — less than a quarter.

Cunningham, now president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP, said this equation concerned Black residents.

“There was a fear that when you looked at the city and the county populations, that the minority vote could be swallowed up by merging,” Cunningham said.

Before merger, Black residents made up about a third of Louisville’s population, according to U.S. Census data from 2000. They accounted for roughly 20% in the newly-formed Louisville Metro.

Like all others, Louisville’s Black communities are not a monolith.

Before the merger vote, William Summers V went door-to-door in favor of merger as part of the Louisville Urban League’s young professionals group. At the time, Summers was in his early 30s working at a community bank. He’s now an executive at Republic Bank.

Summers said the pro-merger message of a united Louisville resonated with him.

“People in the West End at the time, people in the old city at the time, people in the county, there was a divide,” he said in an interview last month. “We still have that divide, but I think it’s gotten better.”

His father worked at the local chamber of commerce, which was one of the major pro-merger organizations, and later became Deputy Mayor.

Summers said he also believed becoming a larger city could help with economic development.

“You’re dealing with one government,” he said. “You’re dealing with one person instead of a County Judge and a Mayor. You felt like that it would really improve and you’d have some efficiencies and synergies to really build upon.”

Summers said it was hard to counter the messaging of anti-merger activists who presented political representation as a math equation. He said he believed then, and still does, that Black leaders can be elected to represent districts that aren’t majority-Black.

And that has happened at least once since merger: The current leader of Metro Council’s Democratic Caucus, Council Member Paula McCraney, is a Black woman representing District 7, which has a majority white population. 

Anti-merger activists worried changing the city’s demographics would make it harder to elect a Black mayor. Today, Louisville remains one of only two major cities in America to have never elected a Black person, a woman or a Hispanic person to the mayor’s office.

But Summer still thinks it’s possible. He pointed to former Metro Council Member David James, who served as the body’s president from 2018 to 2022, as an example of Black residents leading the city.

The results of merger

City officials today still abide by the merger-era promise to have five majority Black districts on Metro Council. About half of residents in Districts 1-5 identified as African American in the 2020 U.S. Census. Those districts cover downtown, west Louisville, Shively and Newburg.

It’s becoming increasingly harder, though, to maintain this system. University of Louisville geographer Matt Ruther said Louisville’s population is shifting eastward, toward the suburbs. Ruther presented Metro Council with an analysis of Census data during the 2021 redistricting process.

“We saw a lot of growth, particularly along the I-64 corridor, Middletown, communities out in that area, but declined a lot in the western part of the [urban] core,” he said.

That means residents are leaving historically Black neighborhoods in west and central Louisville. The eastern suburbs, meanwhile, are gaining. They’re also seeing an increase in racial diversity.

Ruther said many American cities, not just Louisville, are becoming less segregated along geographical lines.

He said these two forces — of lessening geographic segregation and population decline in west Louisville — will make it increasingly difficult to draw five majority Black districts that are also compact, and avoid splitting up neighborhoods and communities.

“Maybe not in 2030 will it be impossible to do it, but at some point you run into a spatial constraint,” Ruther said. “You may not be able to have a district that is 60% Black, it may have to be 48% Black.”

That’s already playing out in one district. As of 2022, Black residents made up slightly less than half, 48%, of the population in District 2, which covers Newburg. When looking at the voting age population, however, Black voters still make up 59%.

There’s also District 6, which is considered a “crossover” district. Those are districts where Black voters are not a majority, but there are enough of them that their preferred candidate is likely to win. Some Metro Council members raised concerns during the most recent redistricting process after District 6, which includes Old Louisville, Algonquin and Shelby Park, went from 47% to 40% Black.

Why it matters

Many people see less-segregated neighborhoods as a good thing. But they can pose a problem for the system of political representation for minority groups that depends on them staying concentrated in certain districts or neighborhoods.

Some activists, like Robert LeVertis Bell, say the 20-year-old promise of five majority Black districts is an imperfect system that may not be prepared for the future. Bell was in his early 20s when merger took place. More recently, he ran as a progressive candidate for Metro Council and the General Assembly.

Bell said even in his relatively short life he’s seen segregation in Louisville change. Bell comes from a political family. His grandmother is the respected civil rights activist Mattie Jones. His father worked in the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office.

Sometime around 1989, Bell said, he and his family attended a rally outside the home of a Black family that was living in a segregated neighborhood in the mostly white South End and being harassed. During that rally, he said a neighbor came out on his porch with a shotgun and pointed it at protesters.

“Whatever you say about the world now versus then, people aren’t pulling out shotguns when they see a Black person in their neighborhood anymore. At least not in broad daylight with news cameras rolling,” Bell said.

He said it’s not only Black residents who are moving into neighborhoods that used to be segregated. He said he also sees white people repopulating urban areas, including historically Black neighborhoods. Experts have noted this seeming reversal of “white flight” since the 1990s.

He pointed to his own neighborhood of Shelby Park as an example. A recent analysis by the Courier Journal found that between 2014 and 2018 the white population of Shelby Park increased by 20%, while the Black population decreased by roughly the same amount.

“We want our housing to not be segregated along economic lines, racial lines,” Bell said. “So to the degree to which that happens, and the degree to which people are not subsequently economically and politically disempowered, that’s a good thing.”

Plus, Bell said he doesn’t think the current system of five majority Black districts necessarily ensures that Black residents’ interests are represented.

“Black political power is not merely when a Black person is in office, Black political power is when Black working class people feel like they have a voice and a stake in their political futures,” he said.

Bell said political leaders now need to focus on building diverse coalitions of working-class residents and ensure that their needs are being met.

Donna Purvis, who went door knocking against merger in the ‘80s, said she agrees it’s more about who gets elected than who elects them.

“A snake is a snake,” Purvis said. “And all skin folk are not kinfolk.”

Purvis now represents District 1, one of the majority-Black districts on Metro Council. And she said she sees the value in keeping them.

She said the West End neighborhoods she represents, like Shawnee, Chickasaw and Russell, have changed dramatically since her childhood in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“You know, we had beautiful, beautiful communities,” Purvis said. “Everything was clean. You didn’t have vacant and abandoned homes. You didn’t have dirty alleys.”

Purvis doesn’t place blame for the decline solely on merger, but she said Black communities having a smaller share of political representation in city government didn’t help. She wondered if maybe the old City of Louisville would have done more to stop it.

Purvis said she’s also concerned that the number of majority Black districts could shrink even more in the coming decades.

Asked why, she gave this metaphor:

“OK, are you a father?” Purvis asked. “Do you think anyone could father your child like you? Do you understand my point?”

We examined the ways the city-county merger affects Louisvillians’ lives now. Explore more stories from our series, “How merger reshaped Louisville.”

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