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    On Election Day in November, Cheri Bryant Hamilton went to several cemeteries in town where local suffragists were being honored. At Eastern Cemetery next to Cave Hill, a sign credited Fannie Givens with being the first African-American woman to serve in the city’s police department, beginning her job in 1927. But Hamilton had always heard from police officers that Bertha Whedbee had gained that distinction in 1922.

    “So I had a conflict,” Hamilton says. She got in touch with the Frazier History Museum, which spearheaded the gravesite project and had its people go back to their sources. The police department’s records were correct, and, by the next day, retired and active-duty officers had raised nearly $3,000 for a monument for Whedbee, and a ceremony at Louisville Cemetery on Poplar Level Road had been scheduled to honor her.

     “Just little things like that,” Hamilton says, reflective as she thinks back on her career as a councilmember for District 5, covering parts of the west Louisville neighborhoods Portland, Shawnee, Russell and Chickasaw. “Little victories to cross off the list.” She says holding a higher office never interested her. “This is where the rubber hits the road, where you get that pothole paved or you get that sidewalk or you get that grant to help this organization do what they’re doing,” she says.

    Her 18-year tenure, which ended Dec. 31, is the longest of any elected female city official. She lost the May primary amid last-minute allegations that she had committed ethics violations by using taxpayer money to fund tickets to a Louisville Urban League Derby gala. She denied the accusations and was later cleared of them, but only after her opponent, Donna Purvis, won by just more than 150 votes. Hamilton declines to talk in detail about the controversy but says, “You hope people wouldn’t run dirty campaigns or underhanded tactics, but that’s still alive and well. But I never ran a race like that.”

    One of her first votes as an alderwoman (before city-county merger in 2003) had helped pass the full extent of the Fairness Ordinance, which named sexual orientation as a protected class for equal opportunity. Hamilton says that vote is one of her proudest moments in office. An ordinance she was particularly conflicted about was the 2008 smoking ban. She had been a smoker for years, even though her two children and her physician father always got on her about the habit. (The city health director at the time even tried to hypnotize her to help her stop smoking. “It didn’t take,” she says, laughing, though she eventually did quit.) At the time, she thought neighborhood hangouts could likely go under if smoking indoors was banned. Ultimately, her family’s voices kept playing in her head. “I had to think about the greater good and the health of the community,” she says of her vote to help pass the ban.

    During her time in office, she also experienced more than a little frustration. Like when the Metro Council passed a minimum-wage increase and gun-control legislation, and the state struck down both. She also mentions how attempts to build affordable housing in certain parts of town drew backlash and concerns over traffic or property values. “People don’t want things in their backyard,” she says. “They fear.”

    In west Louisville, she worked to magnify issues surrounding things like transitional housing, and she helped pass an ordinance to stop alcohol sales in the Shawnee neighborhood. “We were getting bombarded with requests for 4 a.m. (liquor) licenses and new liquor stores,” Hamilton says. Bonnie Cole, president of the Shawnee Neighborhood Association, says, “People told us that it was a waste of our time, but she worked with us.

    “She actually brought the government to us — different departments and their purposes, key persons who you need to contact,” Cole continues. “When she lost the election, somebody from Newburg said, ‘Hey, do you think she could move out here with us? We want her.’ When you hear people outside your community talk about her, you realize what you have.”

    Had Hamilton taken her election loss hard? “You would think so,” she says, “but I’ve — frankly, before I filed for this last run, we were all together as a family in Washington and I was like, ‘I don’t know if I’ve got another four years in me, you know?’ I was feeling that it was time to give it up, but I couldn’t decide and everybody was like, ‘Oh, do one more time.’ I said, ‘Maybe I’ll do two years and turn it over to somebody and really groom somebody to take the seat.’ Of course, you always want to go out on your own terms.”

     

    The gravesite for Whedbee is also dedicated to her husband, Dr. Ellis Whedbee, who was a founding physician at the Red Cross Hospital, which treated African-American patients when they weren’t allowed in whites-only hospitals. Red Cross started downtown and soon moved to Shelby Street, south of Shelby Park. It’s where Hamilton’s father worked as a doctor and where, in 1950, she was born.

    Sometimes Hamilton would visit her father at his office. “He’d always have these little Dum Dum lollipops to give kids,” she says, “and just watching him interact with the community and with his patients taught me a lot about how you treat people and how you listen to people.” Her mother, activist Ruth Bryant, was a college-educated housewife and substitute teacher who spent most of her time involved in social-justice efforts. “She and (activist) Anne Braden, I believe, are the reason (the city has) quarterly junk pickups,” Hamilton says.

    Hamilton’s parents were transplants, her father from Oklahoma and her mother from Detroit. As Hamilton puts it, Louisville was a compromise. They raised her and her three siblings in a home overlooking Chickasaw Park on coveted Southwestern Parkway, a few doors down from where Martin Luther King Jr.’s brother A.D. King lived. During segregation, the family often traveled outside the city to go to movies or to try on clothes. “Just a normal childhood,” Hamilton says. Donna Sanders, who worked as a legislative assistant under numerous council members before retiring last year, mentions that Hamilton’s childhood home had a swimming pool and a billiards table. “The most beautiful experience was the bathroom,” Sanders says. “There were mirrors and makeup all around.”

    Hamilton’s parents constantly entertained. She likens her childhood home to the story behind the recent Oscar-winning Green Book, which gets its name from a directory for blacks looking for places where they could stay or eat during Jim Crow-era segregation. Hamilton’s parents would point visitors to nearby gas stations and restaurants. But what stuck with Hamilton most were the open-door meetings that would go on at the Bryant residence, with A.D. King and others in and out, strategizing. Doctors, lawyers, undertakers and others would come by on Sunday afternoons. “I could be sitting on the steps in the hall and listen to the adults talking, and just kind of learning, absorbing what they were talking about,” Hamilton says.

    By 16, Hamilton was getting escorted out of City Hall while participating in open-housing demonstrations. Thirty-some years later, she’d have her own high-ceilinged office on the third floor of that building, with a view of downtown and nearly 100 photos and artifacts on the walls, including photos with Martin Luther King Jr. She remembers when MLK would come through town and lead marches and rallies. Hamilton says, “You could see how he interacted with the family and how he was kind of a jokester and would tease them and encourage them.” She was in his niece Alveda’s wedding in Atlanta. “So I got an opportunity to visit his home in Atlanta, heard him play the violin or piano — I can’t remember,” she says. “People were very protective of him and his time and his space. You kind of had to be in a little circle to get close to him, which my mother was part of.”

    In 1966, following a vote against a measure to end housing discrimination, Hamilton and others organized a voter-registration drive and were able to get some of those naysayers out of office. The issue eventually passed. “I said, ‘Whoa!’ and I just felt the power,” Hamilton says.

    Hamilton entered college at historically black Fisk University in Nashville, and attended law school at North Carolina Central University. In 1975, working in the city’s legal department, she helped write the city’s first affirmative-action plan. Hamilton took volunteer and paid positions on various political campaigns; she went to the Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Jimmy Carter in 1980, and for Jesse Jackson in ’84. Under Kentucky Gov. Martha Layne Collins, Hamilton started working on the Kentucky Commission on Women, then as a program coordinator and grant writer with the Board of Education in Louisville. She got a job as the legislative assistant for 10th Ward Alderman Rhonda Richardson. In 1999, 12th Ward Alderman Paul Bather, eyeing a seat in the state House, approached Hamilton, then the board clerk, to run for his seat. “Most people get into office because they want to do it. They feel that they have something to offer and they want to make a contribution,” Hamilton says. “Well, I guess you could say other people saw that in me. (People) were like, ‘It’s your time,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, gosh, no.’”

    Hamilton’s clerk job on the board of alderman was a behind-the-scenes position that allowed her to work with department heads and the mayor. (She worked under five mayors from the ’70s until the end of her last term.) “You’re working with everybody that affects city government and you’re working with the public,” she says. “I learned a lot about government on the inside…so I felt more confident at that point running.”

    Before Hamilton entered office in 2000, she says, the exiting aldermen invited back all the former members who were still living. “I looked at all those folks and I said, ‘Well, I’m just as talented as they are.’ I said, ‘I can do this. They’re just normal, everyday people.’ That gave me a little confidence that, OK, Cheri, you’re stepping out here,” she says.

     

    During her last term in office, Hamilton approached Waterfront Park president David Karem to see about extending the park along the river to the western part of the city. He told her that, actually, there had always been a plan for that. So she pushed for money in the budget over the past couple years to get it going again. Now it’s one of many major projects underway in west Louisville.

    “West Louisville deserves to prosper like any other neighborhood,” Hamilton says. “The West End — we used to say the best end. And I still feel that it has the potential to get back to that.”

    When I meet with Hamilton a month into her retirement, the 68-year-old seems peppier. She’s a little less reserved and seems less time-conscious. “I saw the mayor and the mayor said, ‘Oh, you look so relaxed,’” she says. Before leaving office, she and three assistants sorted more than two decades of documents, research and speeches. Whatever didn’t go to archives or to her successor is now in about 20 boxes scattered throughout her home in Chickasaw, down the street from where she grew up. She has been chipping away at the files and is 31 pages into writing the book about her life and those who influenced her, particularly her mother.

    Without meetings and obligations, she sleeps in, which she enjoys because she’s always been one to stay up till 2 a.m., reading or listening to audiobooks like Michelle Obama’s memoir, Becoming. Most days, she gets up and fixes oatmeal and zucchini bread, along with a cappuccino. She reads the New York Times and is ready to start her day by noon.

    As research for her memoir, she has been gathering family photos from Oklahoma in the early 1900s. People have approached her to serve on boards and get involved in certain projects, but she says she has mostly declined, wanting to take time to relax and travel. But it is difficult for a history enthusiast like Hamilton to avoid things like the city’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day motorcade and rally, where she served as a grand marshal. She’s been helping plan a women’s suffrage event for 2020, the centennial of women winning the right to vote, and was recently on a panel at the main library commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Fairness Ordinance.

    “I’m like Forrest Gump — you know, how he always was on the scene at a lot of events,” she says. She’s in a group called Sisters in History, and they meet to tell their stories and find intersections in social-justice efforts. Hamilton briefly put her book on hold to write a speech for an event honoring her mother on March 9. “I can’t write about myself without writing about my mother,” she says.

    Ruth Bryant was a history major who worked to get black history taught at JCPS and U of L. In search of her own far-off history, Hamilton and her siblings recently sent off for their DNA profiles and signed up with
    Ancestry.com, connecting with distant cousins. Recognizing and understanding history propels Hamilton forward. “If you don’t know and I don’t know, then we’re all ignorant,” Hamilton says. When I met with her in her office last year, she picked up a signed copy of Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1967 book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? “It could have been written last week,” she said.

    While on the council, one of the last things Hamilton helped set in motion was approval and funding for a historical marker for nationally recognized architect and builder Samuel Plato, who in the early 1900s designed and built a lot of the houses near Hamilton’s childhood home. Her parents are now deceased and her siblings live in D.C., but Hamilton has kept up the home. “I’m always getting approached by people that want to buy it,” she says, “but it’s so hard for black people to get property and to hold on to property and to land. I don’t want to let it go.”

    She says development in west Louisville is overdue, and she remains “cautiously optimistic.” The city’s $65-million budget deficit that has been in the news recently has her concerned. So do reports of puny tax returns for middle-class and poor people. “Maybe some people on the council and in the (state) legislature” — she mentions state representatives Attica Scott and Charles Booker — “will pick up the mantle.

    “I’m gonna concentrate now on the shoulders on who they stand,” she says. “I’m gonna make sure that this history gets recorded.”

    This originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Sister in History." To read more from our 2019 West End Issue, click here.

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    Photo by Danny Alexander, dannyalexanderphoto.com

    Mary Chellis Nelson's picture

    About Mary Chellis Nelson

    Mary Chellis Nelson is the managing editor of Louisville Magazine.

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