Why Should Louisville Be Called Louisville?

(An exploration of, among other things, the notion that Falls City – founded on occupied Shawnee lands – ought to acknowledge its colonial history by adopting a Shawnee name)

As a Louisville native – even one who has spent much of my adult life abroad – I can’t help but feel a certain emotional attachment to the unique cultural attributes of my hometown, right down to the Louisvillian pronunciation of ‘Louisville’ itself. Equally, and despite that attachment, I’ve felt hard-pressed in recent years to justify to myself and others why Louisville ought to be called Louisville. In the aftermath of the shootings of Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, and Hamza Nagdy (may they rest in power) – and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to which all of them are martyrs and which one of them helped lead – all Louisvillians, especially white Louisvillians, have had to take a long-overdue look at the racist history of our city.

Whether we look at the exclusion of Black Kentuckians from the Bourbon trade, the existence and subsequent historical erasure of Louisville’s nineteenth-century slave markets, the antebellum hemp industry staffed by forced labor and aimed at the manufacture of cotton-sacks for shipment to the Deep South, the twentieth-century zoning laws that have kept the city segregated for five generations and destroyed Black neighborhoods that once ranked among the most vibrant and prosperous in the Southern United States, or the racist and classist elitism of the thoroughbred horseracing industry so dear to the self-conception of both our city and the Commonwealth of which it forms part, the suffering wrought by whiteness and the power structures built up to maintain it are hard to ignore. And yet, for decades, most white Louisvillians, including myself, have largely done exactly that – spoon-fed from youth a heavily edited version of history calculated, in a dazzling feat of intellectual gymnastics, to focus almost exclusively on the stories of white people while somehow ignoring our many collective misdeeds.

That style of education and its limitations have hobbled many a white Kentuckian’s cognitive capacities to understand the perspectives of Kentuckians of color, even when such perspectives are clearly articulated, and at the forefront of social and political life. As a teenager and young adult, I was baffled by the periodic uprisings of socially and economically disenfranchised Black Louisvillian youth that I would hear about on television or in the press, and which I, like many white commentators at the time, dismissed as riots. In the eyes of white Louisvillians institutionally groomed from childhood to believe the centrist maxims that racism in the United States was so vestigial and fringe that it could be safely ignored, and that the entire country had been virtually classless since the revolutionary war and wholly free of gender and racial inequality since the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, the idea that people living only a few short miles away from me could feel discrimination-based frustration so powerful it could spur them to any sort of aggression – even against property, let alone people – seemed completely alien to my experience, not to mention irrational. Surely, I thought, the economic and political system was fine, and the dissenters would be, too, if only they ‘calmed down’ and ‘played by the rules’.

It took a prolonged sojourn in Scotland and years of involvement with the movement to revitalize the minoritized Scottish Gaelic language to make me realize just how wrong I had been. Within the Scottish Gaelic activist community, it was common knowledge that the political establishment of United States at all levels was founded on and steeped in racism, and that capitalism was so thoroughly bound up in white supremacy that it was fundamentally unreconcilable with anti-racism. Viewed through this lens, the young Black ‘rioters’ weren’t rioters at all, but insurrectionists striking out at the systems that had failed them – ordinary people driven to desperation, with no legally permissible outlets for their frustrations. At first, I tried to resist that way of thinking, feeling that it was too radical; but, looking at Louisville from a distance, and pouring back over my personal history with race and my hometown, I came to realize that the Scottish assessment of the US as fundamentally racist was essentially true; and that the centrist Liberalism I had clung to, and in which I had always believed as a matter of course, had been little more than state-sanctioned brainwashing.

How, I wondered, had I been so misled? One way that the social studies curriculum of my youth had ignored the complicity of white Kentuckians in processes like the genocide of indigenous peoples or the national slave trade was by simply leaving Kentucky out of history. I recall having been subjected to countless lessons on the British and then the American colonial projects, and discussions of racism ranging from the earliest days of European settlement in North America to the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s – but Kentucky never really got mentioned. At one level, this is surely indicative of the regional prejudice to which Kentuckians have been continually subjected for most of the Commonwealth’s existence; most New Yorkers, Bostonians and Angelenos couldn’t care less about what goes on in Kentucky, and because their regions have larger populations, more wealth, and more direct control of the national media than Kentuckians do, their idea of what’s important has tended to be hegemonic, even among many Kentuckians: I know many a Louisvillian who could rattle off the name of every New York City borough but who would falter half-way through reciting a mental list of Louisville neighborhoods. Perhaps, then – or perhaps not – the textbooks of my youth would have had more to say about Louisville had they been written by Louisvillians.

However, although the regional prejudice against Kentuckians – and, indeed, against Southerners in general – ought be acknowledged and combated, there was more going on in the planning of the curriculum than just regional discrimination: white Kentuckians stood to benefit a great deal, at least in terms of emotional wellbeing, from the deafening silence concerning our racist past. The less evidence the education system presented concerning the racially-motivated collective crimes of white Kentuckians – or, for that matter, the class-motivated collective crimes of rich Kentuckians – the less reason middle-class white people in Kentucky would have to question the in-built racial and economic hierarchies from which we profited, or to seek common cause with those who hoped to topple those hierarchies.

The way this essay is going, one might think it would end in a call for education reform – an appeal for a curriculum that has more to say about Kentucky, especially the historical contributions of marginalized Kentuckians, and the moral failures and mass misdeeds of Kentucky’s white urban elite. As it happens, I do advocate for such a reform, but – as the article’s title suggests – my goal here is to suggest not a change to Louisville’s educational praxis, but to its name.

In a way, changing Louisville’s name would be an educational reform of sorts in and of itself – and one far more wide-reaching than any curricular change. The name of a place is itself instructive – a symbol of the location it denotes, and a shorthand for that place’s history. As most Louisvillians could tell you, Louisville’s name is derived from that of King Louis XVI of France – a great benefactor to the fledgling United States during the American Revolution, and honored as such not only by the renaming of the city once known as Falls City and Fort Nelson, but by the placement of his statue at its civic and administrative center. For various reasons, however, renaming the city in Louis’ honor seems a problematic decision in hindsight. For one thing, he was a friend to revolutionaries only in America: on his own continent, his regime so starved, abused and misgoverned the French people that they rose up against him, ultimately ending both his reign and his life. While he lived – presiding, I might add, over a literal empire – the mere circumstances of his birth afforded him all the privileges not only of whiteness, wealth, and relative good health, but also of royalty. it’s safe to say, adjusting for advances in medicine and the technologies of comfort, that few if any Kentuckians have ever enjoyed affluence or luxury comparable to his.

To be clear, I bear no grudge against Louis: obviously, I never knew him personally, and what little I do know of his personal life paints a sympathetic picture. It is entirely possible that he behaved as ethically as he felt he could under his circumstances, and that he, as an individual, didn’t deserve his grisly end. Even so, his personal culpability – or lack thereof – wasn’t all that material to the Revolutionary tribunals. Though it was Louis himself that the French Revolutionaries tried and executed when they finally made him subject to the laws of the country he had ruled, the real target of public ire was the institution of the French monarchy that he, as its monarch, symbolized. If, at any time before the Revolution, Louis had recognized and discarded the privileges of his rank – dissolving his empire, redistributing his wealth among the common people, disentitling the nobility, and abdicating his throne – then he could have avoided the guillotine. Instead, he tried almost to the end to hold on to his power, and history bore witness to the sad result.

In many ways, the choice faced by Louis is the same one faced by the white Kentuckians – and, indeed, white Americans in general – today: after centuries of carefully orchestrated racial dominance, the white majority is losing its grip on power, and so white people have a decision to make. On the one hand, even as our numbers dwindle and our share of global and national wealth declines, we can still fight to maintain our dominion using the well-worn tools of violence, deception, and coercion. These tactics can yield one of two results: either we’ll go the way of Louis and the French aristos, modern equivalent of the guillotine and all; or we’ll succeed in turning the tables on the revolutionaries, and maintain our reign – no longer with the window dressing of Liberal Democracy, but instead within the rigid framework of a nakedly racist totalitarian regime. Either way, we will have either lost or destroyed everything we love about the world we currently rule. Alternatively, we can avoid falling afoul of the Revolution not by trying not to crush it, but by joining.

White people aren’t hated because of the color of their skin, but because they benefit from a system wherein anyone different from them has to work harder and longer to lead more difficult lives than they do. That’s the key to understanding racism. Substitute ‘rich people’ or ‘coastal elites’ for ‘white people’, and the same formula can explain classism and regionalism. The cure to any of these social ills is therefore simple, at least in principle: if the people atop the hierarchy voluntary acknowledge and abnegate their privileges, then they divest themselves not only of power, but of the targets on their backs. Louis, although he might have tried his best, chose not to take this opportunity, and suffered the dire consequences – but it might not be too late for white Louisvillians. Why, then, should Louis – whose privilege destroyed him – be the namesake of a city that hopes to come to terms with its racism and classism?

The question seems all the more pertinent when one considers the people whose legacy our city has erased by its celebration of King Louis. The story of Kentucky as it is told in popular culture – if, indeed, it is told in popular culture at all – usually begins with white settlement in the eighteenth century, ignoring the fact that in order for that settlement to have successfully taken place, the displacement of people already living in Kentucky had to occur on a massive scale. Throughout much of Kentucky, including the lands on which Louisville was built, the cultural group most affected by the ethnic cleansing of the region’s native peoples was that of the Shawnee. Once inhabiting an area that ran east along the foothills of the Appalachian mountains from Southeastern Kentucky to central Pennsylvania, and west to the further shore of the Mississippi River, the Shawnee people today belong to three federally recognized nations, all of which are based on relatively small reservations in Oklahoma as the result of their forebears’ expulsion from their ancestral lands by encroaching whites in the nineteenth century.

It is neither fair nor fitting that Louisville should reside on Shawnee lands at all – much less that the only civic monument to Shawnee presence in the area should be the name of a single city park, when the city itself in its entirety is given over to memorializing a wealthy white royal who never set foot within the city limits. That the city should donate its municipal lands to the use of one or all of the three Shawnee nations as an act of reparations is a suggestion for another time, if indeed it will be made at all, but simply renaming the city to honor the Shawnee is a far more modest proposal, and one that should be welcomed by a community trying to reconcile itself with its racist history.

It is often said, and not without reason, that Black slavery is America’s original sin, but while the wealth of the United States was undeniably built on the tortured backs of enslaved Africans, as worthy a contender for the dubious distinction of the United States’ original sin, as it tended to coincide with or even precede slavery at every stage in the nation’s development, has surely been the genocide and forced mass-exodus of hundreds of nations of American Indians – the act of depopulating the land that allowed it to play host to the slave-masters and the people whose bodies they used to enrich themselves. If Louisville is serious about its racial reckoning, it should start at the beginning, with the blood under its feet, and recreate itself from the ground up – this time, for the benefit of all its citizens, and not just the white ones. There could be few clearer signals of its intention to do that than its renaming with a Shawnee name – provided, of course, that the people of the Shawnee nations consider it worthy to bear one. In any case, I think it’s high time someone asked the Shawnees what Louisville was called in the time before the settler-colonists renamed it; and then requested their permission to call it by that name again, in the interest of restorative justice. If the Shawnees decide, as well they might, that a city whose founders expelled their ancestors doesn’t deserve a Shawnee name, then Falls City or even Fort Nelson would be just as good a name for this town as Louisville is.

I suspect that some people will dismiss this proposal offhand – some with better reasons than others. To the seasoned civil rights activists likely to roll their eyes at yet another unhelpful suggestion from the sidelines, I can only offer my apologies, and say that I mean no disrespect; if renaming Louisville is low down the list of things that would actually benefit this city and its people – as I suspect it might well be – then of course I take your word for it. Believe me when I say that this article isn’t meant to convince you of anything, but rather to convince those who oppose you of the worthiness of your cause, by inviting them to detect and remove the proverbial scales from their eyes – the veil of misinformation and pseudohistory that so warped my own perspective before I went abroad. If you disagree with anything I’ve said, I welcome your perspective, and if you haven’t found a platform for that perspective, then I’m happy to offer you the use of any means of expression to which I have access. On the other hand, to those who say that Louisville has always been Louisville and therefore ought to remain so, that King Louis is as worthy a namesake as any, or that the rebranding would simply cost too much to implement, I reply only that the renaming of Louisville – although I do sincerely advocate it – isn’t the real issue at stake here. Even if the city should choose to go by one of its current or previous monikers – be it River City, Falls City, Fort Nelson or plain old Louisville – we would do well to remember the truths and moral lessons that these names encode: let us not forget the first people to navigate River City’s River and the falls of Falls City; why and by whom Fort Nelson’s fort was erected on the lands to which those people had ancestral rights; and, last but not least, the terrible price that Louisville’s eponymous King Louis paid for too-long ignoring the suffering and anger of the down-trodden.

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