Merlene Davis: Davis Bottom's history and people highlighted in documentary

Bill Huddleston, left, and his sister Elizabeth Wardle, right, lived next door to each other in $85-a-month houses in Davis Bottom when this photo was shot in December 1980.
Bill Huddleston, left, and his sister Elizabeth Wardle, right, lived next door to each other in $85-a-month houses in Davis Bottom when this photo was shot in December 1980. Herald-Leader

Davis Bottom is the forgotten neighborhood that will always be remembered, thanks to the Davis Bottom History Preservation Project.

The working-class neighborhood, within eyesight of Rupp Arena, has a special place in history. This all came to light when the long talked about federal- and state-funded Newtown Pike extension finally moved to the steps of the community's shotgun houses that have been home to a diverse group of poor and lower-middle-class residents since the 1860s.

The preservation project started in 2003 with the goal of uncovering archeological and oral histories of that community before the area was demolished and rebuilt to accommodate the road extension to direct traffic onto South Limestone and the University of Kentucky campus from Newtown Pike.

The extension project has been proposed for more than 40 years and planning began in earnest in 2000. Oliver Lewis Way, which opened in 2010, is the most recently completed part of the project.

The next phase, now under way, directly affects the Davis Bottom community.

"There was history in the area that should be brought to the attention of a broader Kentucky audience," said Kary Stackelbeck, archeology review coordinator for the project. "It was a monumental effort," she said, which resulted in several works:

■ A one-hour documentary by producer Thomas Law of Voyageur Group, Inc., Davis Bottom: Rare History, Valuable Lives, which will be shown on KET in coming months and includes the area's brush with fame.

■ An oral history DVD, Davis Bottom: Living Memories, with three hours of resident interviews;

■ A companion website with information, images and educational materials; and, a digital archive of materials used in the project.

[See the University of Kentucky Archaeological Survey's Davis Bottom History Preservation Project]

"When we started, we said, here is this poor and lower-middle-class neighborhood; what story is there to tell?" said project director David Pollack, director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey. "Every neighborhood has a history and a story to tell."

The story Davis Bottom revealed was not only how it became home to generations of black, European and Appalachian families, who came in search of a better life, but also how those groups forged a bond that still exists today.

"The story is these people," Pollack said.

Davis Bottom, home of the Nathaniel United Methodist Mission, was established when William Willard Davis, a Republican attorney, land speculator and civil rights advocate, bought 43 lots in a swampy bottom land that were sold to blacks after the Civil War. Most of the lots were sold by 1867, with 25 of them sold to Rudolph de Roode, a music professor who built at least 12 cottages for private sale to "colored people" along Brisbin Street, later renamed De Roode Street.

One of the first homes built in the area was that of Robert Elijah Hathaway, a Union soldier, minister and community leader, as well as the father of Isaac Scott Hathaway, nationally recognized sculptor and professor. Built around 1865, the house was located at 208 West Pine Street.

On July 4, 1867, Davis delivered a speech at a huge gathering of between 6,000 and 10,000 black people near Davis Bottom in which he advocated voting rights for blacks. It is assumed, but not verified, that Hathaway was there as well.

The speech was later printed in a Cincinnati newspaper and then cited on the floor of the U.S. Senate by Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts during a debate on the Third Reconstruction Act of 1867. Sumner tried to have Kentucky included in the Reconstruction measures, but Kentucky Sen. Garrett Davis, a Democrat and not related to Willard Davis, opposed the move, creating a heated debate between the men.

The measure passed, but Kentucky was exempted as Garrett had hoped.

Yvonne Giles, director of the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum, pointed out that three years before the debate in the Senate, Garrett had owned Robert Hathaway.

Davis Bottom had been well represented on a national level.

Law details that history in the documentary, along with the bond of the residents.

Before it airs on KET, there will be two advance screenings of the film Saturday at the Carver Community Center during the neighborhood's annual Community Unity Day. The screenings are at 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Photographs, maps and original artwork will also be exhibited, including family photographs from residents and former residents.

"I think the strongest part is the final segment," Law said, "which is living history."

That segment focuses on two aspects of the community: the closeness and the legendary softball games in the neighborhood park.

Still, in reality, the neighborhood is in transition, complete with heavy machinery and gobs of dirt.

Andrew Grunwald, Newtown extension project manager, said a box culvert that will carry the lower fork of Town Branch is complete and workers are putting the finishing touches on the fill for the new homes and constructing the streets and trunk lines for the sanitary and storm sewers. Rain has delayed construction, he said.

There will be maps at the Saturday event showing plans for the road completion, and there will be depictions of the houses that will be built.

The end of the project may still be five years away, however, he said.

Law said the preservation project owes a great deal to the residents who willingly opened their lives so others could get a glimpse of how they have lived for decades.

He said others told him Davis Bottom residents are very private people who wouldn't give him a lot of support.

That was not true.

"They are very proud of their history and wanted to share it and wanted people to know who they are," he said. "This just scratches the surface of Davis Bottom. I hope more will come."


'Davis Bottom: Rare History, Valuable Lives'

What: Advance screening of a documentary about the neighborhood in downtown Lexington near Rupp Arena that is being rebuilt to make way for the Newtown extension project. The screenings are part of the neighborhood's annual Community Unity Day.

When: 9: 30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Aug. 3.

Where: Carver Community Center, 522 Patterson St.

Admission: Free.