Book shows another side of Frankfort's lost Crawfish Bottom

Author contrasts seedy reputation of crawfish bottom in frankfort with residents' memories

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comSeptember 4, 2011 

Crawfish Bottom, a neighborhood set on 50 swampy acres along the Kentucky River in north Frankfort, was destroyed between 1958 and 1984 as part of urban renewal.

Though many African-Americans lived there, it was an integrated community in a time of segregation. Often called "Craw" or the "Bottom," it was labeled for decades by outsiders as crime-ridden, a place marked by prostitution, gambling and bootlegging, according to Douglas Boyd, author of a new book called Crawfish Bottom: Recovering a Lost Kentucky Community.

Still, the neighborhood "had an intensely strong sense of community, a closeness that overcame both segregation and poverty," and friendships that defied racial segregation, said Boyd, who is director of the University of Kentucky Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.

By the 1970s, most of the houses in the loosely defined neighborhood had been destroyed to make way for Frankfort's Capital Plaza.

It would be more than two decades later, in 1991, that "neighborhood insiders were able to voice their version of history" in oral history interviews conducted by James E. Wallace, who was working on a master's degree in history, Boyd said.

With material from Wallace's interviews, Boyd's book addresses the gap between the reputation of the neighborhood and the memories people held.

"The idea of pointing out the disparity between those two things is a real interesting way of looking at the process of creating history," Boyd said. "There is a great deal of frustration that still is around today because they felt like a community was taken from them."

Some of the more eccentric characters in Crawfish Bottom were a neighborhood boss called the King of Craw, a madam who advertised her prostitutes on the balcony of her house in negligees, and a man who spent much of his war pension on treats for neighborhood children.

The King of Craw was a white man named John Fallis who was larger than life, Boyd said.

"He was a grocer, a bootlegger, a gambler, a neighborhood boss, a Robin Hood figure who gave back to the poor," Boyd said. "He influenced the voting bloc that was the neighborhood, faked his own death in 1912, shot three policemen in one evening in 1921. Because no one died in the incident, Fallis only got six months" in the county jail.

When he was released, Fallis sued the insurance company for damage done to his grocery store during the incident with police, and he won.

He was killed in 1929, but the legend of Fallis continues today, Boyd said.

"He is remembered for his exploits and his quick temper, but he is also remembered fondly by those whose families he helped as a kind and community-oriented leader," he said.

David Fallis, who works as a technology systems consultant for the state, said his grandfather was "very much for the underdog."

Fallis said his grandfather let people in Craw take their time in paying their bills at his general store. "A lot of times those bills just disappeared," he said.

Some of his businesses were not legitimate, Fallis said.

"He was selling some illegally distilled spirits. He would buy votes just to sway an election. He was quite the womanizer, which got him into a few scrapes here and there," Fallis said. "A lot of his notoriety came from his disagreement with the city fathers who just simply weren't taking care of poor people, and he ran afoul of the law on a few occasions. There was a real hate-love relationship between the city and John."

Another grandson, John Fallis of Frankfort, said his grandfather had a "claw-yourself-to-the-top mentality."

A white woman named Ida Howard was a prominent madam who allegedly advertised her prostitutes on the balcony of her house, yet residents who provided oral histories remembered her as a good-hearted neighbor.

They also remembered a black man named James "Squeezer" Brown, who spent much of his World War I pension on treats for the children of Craw.

Mary Clay is a black woman who was born in Crawfish Bottom and grew up there in the 1940s and 1950s.

"There were schools, there were preachers, there were teachers, there were doctors who lived in Craw," she said in an interview with the Herald-Leader.

"Everybody looked out for each other. It was poor housing, but we were poor together and we didn't realize we were poor," Clay said.

She said many people in the neighborhood had expected to move back to a renewed neighborhood after their houses were torn down.

"They had promised they were going to build it back up and we were going to move back," she said. "People were really disappointed in the whole thing."

David Fallis did not live in Crawfish Bottom but said he feels a sense of loss nonetheless.

"I think it's a shame that that part of our history is totally lost except in pictures that few people can relate to," he said.

Boyd's book will be featured at a book signing at 6 p.m. Sept. 22 at Poor Richard's Books in Frankfort, coupled with a presentation about an upcoming documentary and book called Stories From the Balcony by filmmaker Joanna Hay.

Her book and documentary will be about a segregated balcony at Frankfort's Grand Theatre.

Also, a symposium funded by the Kentucky Humanities Council will be held Oct. 25 so people in the community can discuss Crawfish Bottom, the balcony, and the history of African-Americans in Franklin County.

Sheila Mason, who will be featured in the documentary, will be at the symposium to discuss a book published about five years ago that she co-authored, Community Memories: A Glimpse of African American Life in Franklin County.

Mason, who is black, said she went to a segregated school in Crawfish Bottom in the 1950s and 1960s.

"I don't care what your socioeconomic and educational status was in Frankfort, back in that day there was something that drew you to Craw if you were black," Mason said.

"If you went to a black church, you were in Craw. If you were in school and you lived in the downtown area, you went to Craw. ... If you wanted to be entertained, you went to Craw. If you died, the funeral home was in Craw. It was a part of the black community in Frankfort," she said. "For the folks that felt like Craw was part of their lives it was not a violent place or a place where people didn't get along."

In the book, some former residents expressed sadness at the demise of landmarks such as Corinthian Baptist Church, the Mayo-Underwood school and the American Legion building.

"These residents were just trying to live, worship, fall in love, learn and mourn like all of us, really," Boyd said. "I loved going through the late 19th-century newspapers and tracking how the neighborhood earned its reputation, then to offset that by the oral histories which painted a different picture."

Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3409

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