Covering Kentucky

Aug 18, 2013 11:33 AM

Hopkinsville 'Rich' With African-American History

HOPKINSVILLE, Ky. (AP) - At one time, Hopkinsville was a place of more than 200 thriving black-owned businesses ran by doctors, lawyers, realtors and pharmacists.

There were also several African-American schools, including the Hopkinsville Male and Female College, now called the College of the Bible.

Some black churches sat corner to corner with nearly 25 clubs and juke joints, including the Chesterfield Lounge, which was frequented by Al Capone.

Today, many of these places are tucked away, rundown, unkempt or extinct.

The third annual Minority Economic Development Initiative African-American Historic Site Tour brought those pieces of history to the forefront and reminded a group of 20 citizens where black history in Hopkinsville began.

The tour took place via tractor and hayride following a route up Virginia Street through a First Street neighborhood and back to Ninth Street at the Pennyroyal Area Museum.

County historian William Turner and WHOP radio personality Matt Snorton led the narration starting downtown with a painting of Ned Turner, a black man who created waist suspenders.

He created the apparatus in the 1930s, but was recognized in the Kentucky New Era in 1953. Snorton remarked that workers at the time were appreciative of Turner's invention.

"The suspenders held their pants up and the belt kept their back in, too," he said.

The tour continued to Sixth Street at the Peter Postell Building. It was a grocery store, saloon, furniture store and a barber shop. Upstairs were meeting rooms and an assembly hall.

Turner said that when Postell died he was acclaimed as the wealthiest black merchant in Kentucky.

Downhill sat the Virginia Hotel, which is now Virginia Place Senior Apartments at Fourth and Virginia streets.

Across the street sat several bars and restaurants. Where they stood is now a vacant patch of grass behind Grace Episcopal Church.

"It was not uncommon to see people leaving the nightclub passing several people going into church Sunday morning," Snorton said.

Between Virginia Street Missionary Baptist and Freeman Chapel AME churches, stood (Phillip) Brooks Hospital, which, Turner said, the doctor built with his own hands.

Brooks lived at the clinic and owned several clubs and juke joints as well. He was prominent in the African-American community, but closed the hospital in 1976.

Snorton remarked that integration killed the majority of local black-owned businesses.

"They all of a sudden had choices of where to shop," he said. "They felt like they didn't have to fight for anything anymore."

This was evident by some of the sites on the tour.

Attucks High School on First Street closed in 1968, and although it's still standing, many of the windows are boarded and it hasn't been used in years.

Recent plans to make the school a business center were halted when asbestos was found.

Booker T. Washington School on Second Street was in the process of being torn down several years ago.

MEDI Executive Director Henry Snorton III was leading the historic tour as one corridor of the building was being demolished by a construction crew. Snorton said it was like history being erased right before their eyes.

Cedar Grove Baptist Church pastor Norris Mills found out about the demolition project and bought the school. It has since been restored with a new floor and ceiling.

"The more awareness you bring the better you can fix things," he said. "Some of the despair we see on these tours can be improved now that we know."

Matt Snorton, whose family lived in Crofton, remembers going to many of the locations as a child. His uncle sold moonshine outside the nightclubs.

"He liked bringing us younger kids because he knew the police usually wouldn't stop him with kids in the car," he said.

The tour stopped at PS&J Clothing on South Campbell Street, which was a black police sub-station between 1930 and 1960. The Hopkinsville Police Department assigned four officers to this post to "keep things under control" near the nightclubs.

"As a kid, I was highly impressed because I had never seen black policemen before," Matt Snorton said. "I don't recall them having to do a lot of arrests . fights were common, but drugs weren't a big deal back then."

Matt Snorton said it's heartbreaking to see not only the buildings disappear, but also the history behind them. He said the tour is a way to pass those stories down.

Elena Radford, 9, sat on the hay bales learning about places she never knew existed. She said it was neat learning about all of the businesses that African-Americans owned.

Corey Wadlington, who grew up in Hopkinsville, said he didn't know about a lot of the sites on the tour. Wadlington is a professor at West Kentucky Community & Technical College in Paducah.

"We pass by a lot of these buildings every day and don't realize the historical significance of them," he said.

Henry Snorton said that's why they continue having the tour every year during MED Week.

"It's not public education that we get in schools," he said. "Being an African-American male, I feel like it's my responsibility to make sure the youth know about this and preserve it . this history is almost world-renowned. It's so rich."

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