As a target of bourbon country, Muhammad Ali’s birthplace and home of the Kentucky Derby, Louisville has three global tourist attractions. Located less than 200 miles from Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and Nashville, it’s also an easy commute and the perfect weekend getaway for much of the heartland of America.
With premier cultural, sporting and historical sites, Louisville has something for everyone. It shines most when these interests align as they do so forcefully at the Muhammad Ali Center.
The Ali Center is as dedicated to the “champion’s” social justice efforts as it is to his boxing exploits. “Train” with “The Biggest,” watch his old fights, and follow him from his childhood in Louisville to his rise to become the most recognizable person on Earth through countless photos, ephemera and memorabilia. ‘Ali and others.
The highlight of the Center, however, interprets his opposition to the Vietnam War for which he was stripped of his heavyweight title, vilified by much of the United States and placed in a position of social commentary that no athlete has not taken before or since. The Center deftly and candidly presents both sides of Ali’s “conscientious objection” to serving in Vietnam – “whites send blacks to fight the yellows to protect the country they stole from the reds” – and the vitriol which he faced from ordinary citizens and politicians, including lawmakers in his home state who at the time passed a resolution saying he was bringing the Commonwealth into disrepute.
The backlash Ali faced as a black man defending his beliefs about civil rights, human rights, and America’s abuses against his own citizens and the world in the 1960s reverberates deeply – And unfortunately – until the present day.
Louisville has thankfully located many of its top attractions within a few blocks of each other in downtown West Main Street. The Ali Center, Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory – another ‘must’ for sports fans – the Frazier History Center, the KMAC contemporary art museum focused on artists from Kentucky and the region, the Kentucky Science Center , the Kentucky Center for the Performing Art and The KFC Yum Center, where the University of Louisville plays its basketball games and hosts big concerts, are a short walk away. The city has also done a commendable job in retaining the historic character of this former industrial warehouse district where exposed brickwork and period architectural details abound.
The 21c Museum Hotel on West Main Street is right in the middle of the action – and right behind a 30-foot replica of Michelangelo David sculpture – makes a perfect HQ for exploring downtown Louisville.
When it opens in an expanded and renovated gallery in June, the Roots 101 African American Museum, also within walking distance of West Main Street attractions, becomes Louisville’s must-see new destination.
“We’re shattering the myth of supremacy,” Roots 101 founder Lamont Collins told Forbes.com. “They were (African) kings and queens (before they were) enslaved in America.”
Roots 101 shares the history of black Americans before slavery through a collection of African art dating back centuries, demonstrating that those captured and sent to the transatlantic slave trade had a vibrant culture and society.
“We cannot allow America to continue telling this story,” Collins said. “(Blacks) have to tell the story of who we are. “
In addition to the art collection, Collins has assembled degrading depictions of blacks from American pop culture, candidly showing these dehumanizing artifacts and how they have shaped perceptions of African Americans for over a century.
“When people were running away, I was running towards him,” Collins said of the shocking objects. “Something in me had to be better than the image I see.”
Objects of the slave trade and the Ku Klux Klan, an exhibit highlighting the impact of African-American participation in sport on race relations, a gallery devoted to the history of Kentucky music, a replica of a chamber Green Book hotel and material browsed by Breonna protesters The Taylor Memorial in Jefferson Square Park, less than a mile from Roots 101, fills the museum.
However, no presentation is more moving than a room in the house of “Big Momma”. Every black family has a “big mom”. She is the keeper of the family archives, a proud historian, storyteller and protector. Everyone is safe at Big Momma. Big Momma’s house holds a sacred and central place in African American culture and Collins gives a glimpse of it to the world here.
Pulling the curtain on Big Momma’s house for visitors of all races is a simple, awesome, and effective choice by Collins for intimately welcoming non-Black guests where they’ve almost certainly never been before. The concept is so fresh and powerful in authentic sharing of the everyday history of African Americans that it should be copied by all history museums across the country.
Kentucky Bourbon Trail
At the Frazier Kentucky History Museum – “where the world meets Kentucky” – the state’s inordinate influence on the nation and the world is taking shape. From Corvettes (made exclusively in Bowling Green) to Clooney (George Clooney was born in Lexington), what happened here has profoundly shaped the nation.
Bluegrass, basketball and bourbon too.
Located on the first floor of the Frazier, the Kentucky Bourbon Trail® Welcome Center is the official starting point of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail®. The upstairs “Spirit of Kentucky” exhibit, along with one dedicated to legendary maker Julian “Pappy” Van Winkle, brings this story to life in a way aficionados and newbies alike can appreciate. While bourbon doesn’t technically have to be Kentucky-made to carry the nickname, don’t tell anyone in Kentucky.
For those who want to do more than learn, there are plenty of bourbon brands that have opened up tasting experiences along Main Street in recent years, including Angel’s Envy, Evan Williams, Michter’s, Old Forester, Rabbit Hole, and Kentucky Peerless Distilling. The best tasting opportunity in combo history comes from Frazier’s “The Unfiltered Truth” tour, tracing the African-American experience of Kentucky through bourbon.
All of this and you still haven’t left downtown or need a car.
Long-time walkers looking to rack up impressive strides should take a stroll through the expansive Louisville Waterfront Park and the Big Four Bridge spanning the Ohio River to southern Indiana, where pizza and ice cream rewards adventurers. Taste Americana at its best with a Louisville Bats minor league baseball game right by the park in dazzling Louisville Slugger Field.
Churchill Downs will have to wait for the next trip which will hopefully not be long.