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Louisville neighbors in Russell come together to write their own history

Demetrius McDowell stands to right of the image in a red shirt, behind him is the Louisville skyline.
Joe Manning
Louisville Story Program
“If You Write Me a Letter, Send It Here: Voices of Russell In a Time of Change” aims to give the people who know the Russell neighborhood the best the chance to describe it in their own words.

The Russell neighborhood in Louisville’s West End has long been a pillar of culture and history for Black Louisvillians. A new book from the Louisville Story Program is authored by the people who know the area the best, in all its facets.

“If You Write Me a Letter, Send It Here: Voices of Russell In a Time of Change” is a collection of essays that tell various perspectives from a group of 26 authors.

The authors include decades-long Russell residents, those newer to the community, people who spent their childhood visiting family there and more. Each section highlights different aspects that make up a community.

For his section, Walt Smith chose to focus on a place for gathering together with neighbors: porches.

“Come on Up. Find you a chair.”

“The porch is … I feel like a foundation of like the community because it's something that you know makes you visible to your neighbors,” Smith said. “It gives you the opportunity to interact with your neighbors and to just convene.”

From his childhood, Smith learned that the porch is a place for storytelling. That was proven further when Smith and his wife, Shae, created the West of Ninth blog.

Done in the style of Humans of New York, they went around to neighborhoods to the west of Ninth Street and featured the people who live there.

“Some of the most incredible stories happen on porches,” Smith said. “It's a unique space that people can just create the vibe they want out of it. And then like, it's just inviting, you know?”

A large purpose of the book is to catalog the physical places that bring communities together.

“Wherever we are, we should make a difference”

“My portion of the book really gives somewhat of a historical context of the Black church in Russell,” said David Snardon.

Snardon is a pastor at Joshua Tabernacle Baptist Church, which has been a part of Russell for more than 100 years.

“We have just a long track record of being community members as far as just doing ministry in the church over the years,” Snardon said. “We still see ourselves as being a partner and a member of this community, and we tried to serve it.”

In his chapter, Snardon details the way Joshua Tabernacle and other Black churches in the neighborhood have uplifted and supported marginalized people during times of protest and beyond.

“We don't always see that the Black church is probably one of the Blackest institutions that we have in the United States of America, because it has Black leadership, it serves Black people, it has a Black agenda, it is supported by Black funds,” Snardon said.

He said there aren’t many other institutions that can say the same.

In both their sections and work in the community, Snardon and Smith want to show a wide range of experiences and stories.

“We have different dimensions and degrees of us,” Snardon said. “We're not just one thing all the time, and so this really shows a deep dimension of the different aspects of life that we share here.”

Another goal is to educate young people in the neighborhood about where they live.

“A conversation with myself, or maybe with God”

“This is how we get our history, if nobody tells the story, then we'll never never, never have history,” said Demetrius McDowell, who grew up visiting his family in Russell.

McDowell said he struggled in his path to where he is today. He made unethical choices. His history led him to create Bosses Not Bangers, an organization that teaches young people entrepreneurial skills to prevent them from following the path McDowell did.

He hopes his section of the book gives young people an author they can relate to and make them more willing to take in the text.

“It's definitely important to have those roots be recycled as the Louisville Story Program did with the Russell neighborhood,” McDowell said.

The authors behind the book hope the reader from both in and outside the neighborhood will come to appreciate Russell more after reading it.

“It just opens up that opportunity to get a chance to know Russell because …people heard of Russell, people know about Russell, but this book allows the people that read to know Russell,” Smith said.

The launch party for “If You Write Me a Letter, Send It Here: Voices of Russell In a Time of Change” is April 13 at the Louisville Central Community Center.

Breya Jones is the Arts & Culture Reporter for LPM. Email Breya at bjones@lpm.org.

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