Bowling Green, Kentucky began as a small village in 1798 populated mostly by white settlers and their slaves who worked their farms and orchards in rural Warren County in south central Kentucky. Slave traders–common to larger communities in the state–visited the town to peddle their wares. One slave–Andrew Jackson and not the president–felt that Bowling Green would not changes its behaviors towards blacks and fled northward. Despite a perceived racial hostility, the remaining black population grew at rapid clip. By 1860, 32 percent of Warren County’s population was black. During the latter part of the 19th century, Bowling Green’s black community formed their own schools, churches, and cemeteries.
By the beginning of the 20th century, blacks still comprised 23 percent of the population of Bowling Green and Warren County. Moreover, Bowling Green and Warren County benefitted from the access provided by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad which made the town one of the major commercial stops between Louisville and Nashville. Blacks in the Bowling Green area developed well-organized communities: Shake Rag and Jonesville. By the 1940s, residents of these communities sustained their own grocery stores, auto repair shop, dry cleaners, skating rink, barbershops, restaurants, beauty shops, laundromat, coal company, and seamstress shop. It even had its own segregated medical facility: Warren County Colored Health Clinic. Given the nature of Kentucky’s racial segregation and obvious necessity, Bowling Green’s blacks patronized their businesses for most needs.
Most Bowling Green blacks worked as domestic workers (maids in white homes), cooks, janitors, or general laborers. Many of these workers lived in the Jonesville community. This community was comprised of 30 acres and included 65-70 homes, churches, and businesses. It was directly across from Western Kentucky State College known today as Western Kentucky University.
The other black community, Shake Rag, adjacent to property donated by Bowling Green’s white founder, Robert Moore. One parcel of land was donated by Moore for use by blacks as a public square. As with Jonesville, it contained a variety of businesses, schools, and churches. The black community grew around this land which was later called Lee Square. This same property later became the location for the erection of the George Washington Carver Center and a school playground.
Among the most well-known sites in Shake Rag was the Southern Queen Hotel which served black travelers excluded from the city’s white hotels. Shake Rag also was the site of State Street High and Elementary Schools which began in 1885 and were replaced in 1955 by High Street High School in a nominal attempt to provide separate but equal education. This community was also the site of Bowling Green Academy, a private but short-lived preparatory school for blacks under Presbyterian Church control. Shake Rag also contained the residences and offices of the city’s few black professionals including several doctors and dentists.
In the period from 1960 to 2010, Bowling Green and Warren County evolved from a predominantly white city and country with small to moderate size businesses and a state teachers college to a metropolitan area (city and county combined) with ethnic and economic diversity. It was not perfect but it made progress from an era in the 1960s when black communities and their institutions were dissolved and residents forced to move. Blacks and whites had to adjust to new immigrants that spoke languages other than English and observed cultural traditions different from those prior to 1960.
However, this era revealed that the Bowling Green and Warren County metropolitan area still had its flaws. African Americans and other nonwhites remained absent from the economic and political leadership of Bowling Green and Warren County. The leading African American businessperson in this era owned multiple auto dealerships in Bowling Green and other cities in the US. Although there were other minority entrepreneurs (barber and beauty shops, sanitation company, restaurants, meat processing company) he became the exception rather than the rule. Other minority entrepreneurs did not always share in the economic growth. The shift in racial diversity was not necessarily matched by an expansion in economic diversity among minority groups. In this regard, Bowling Green and Warren has remained a traditionally conservative Kentucky community continually adapting to a culturally diverse and changing status.
Within this diversity context, Bowling Green and Warren County has welcomed all religious traditions including various Christian, Jewish and Islamic worship communities. Given events in other communities in 2010, Bowling Green and Warren County metropolitan area seems to be receptive and more welcoming than in the past.
From: Hardin, John. “Bowling Green and Warren County, Kentucky 1960-2010.” In Griot Circle Study Group Session I from the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Human and Civil Rights Conference.