Kentucky is home to the most Kick Ass Black people in the world. Whether we're talking about the OG GOAT, the OG Aunt Jemima, or The Prince of Jockeys, these Kick Ass Black Kentuckians have changed the whole world.
Photo credit: Kent Gavin
Never forget it. The Greatest of All Time is a Kick Ass Black Kentuckian. World Heavyweight Champion, Sportsman of the Century, Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Olympic Gold Medalist, 56 wins. Muhammad Ali was the greatest fighter inside the boxing ring, but what makes him so remarkable is how he used his athletic accomplishment to fight outside the ring. He was loud and proud—pro-Black, pro-Islam, and anti-war. As if his poetic trash talking wasn't enough to make people fan their faces, Ali became unpopular in the mainstream when he changed his name from his "slave name," Cassius Clay, to one chosen for him by the leader of the anti-integration denomination Nation of Islam. Despite many refusing to use his new name, Muhammad Ali's principles of free speech and religious freedom were unwavering. Ali joined the traditional Sunni Islam in 1975, which led him to deep charitable work, and he again used his platform to speak out against Islamophobia in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Even before high-profile activists had begun protesting the Vietnam War, Ali objected by refusing to be drafted. At his physical prime, at the age of 24, he was stripped of all titles and was banned from boxing for three and a half years, costing him incalculable millions and sending him into debt. Ali's demonstration inspired a global generation of activism, honored at the Muhammad Ali Center in his home town of Louisville, Kentucky where his six core principles are emphasized: Confidence, Conviction, Dedication, Giving, Respect, and Spirituality.
And oh yeah, Muhammad Ali recorded two spoken word albums, both of which were nominated for Grammy's. That is so Kick Ass.
Native to Hopkinsville, bell hooks penned nearly 40 books, numerous scholarly articles, appeared in 13 documentaries, lectured widely, and galvanized a generation of feminists writers. After completing rigorous studies at Stanford University (BA in English) and University of Wisconsin-Madison (MA in English) she published two books back to back that brought her to the fore of the national conversation on 1980s feminism and its deficient language and perspective for Black and working-class women. At a time when only a few voices were staunchly intersectional, hooks ensured that every discussion of power was included race, class, queerness, history, geography, and gender.
Although hooks was a preeminent academic scholar, possessing a Doctorate in English from UC Santa Cruz, her writing is celebrated for its clarity even when the concepts are complex. She taught English, literature, African-American studies, and women's studies across the nation from San Francisco State University to Yale to Oberlin to City College of New York. In 2004 she joined the faculty at Berea College, an institution known for its anti-racist beginnings, in Kentucky and founded the bell hooks Center in 2015, which "honors hooks’ legacy by supporting students as social justice leaders."
As a Buddhist Christian hooks insisted, especially in her later years, that humor, love, and humanization, as the foundations of building community, are necessary to overcome structures of domination.
Kick Ass Black Kentuckian Garrett Morgan of Claysville is responsible for saving millions of lives with his inventions, the 3-way stop light and the smoke hood, which was used to develop the gas mask. But before he got to those, he had businesses to start and other inventions to develop.
Morgan moved to Cincinnati at age 14 to work as a mechanic and then on up to Cleveland around 1895 at the age of 20, employed to repair sewing machines. After over a decade of working for someone else, Morgan decided he was going to start his own sewing machine sales and repair shop. He grew It to a 30-person business, which included tailoring, called the Morgan Skirt Factory. Always attuned to ways to improve how things worked, he turned his attention to a flaw in commercial sewing machines—the needle worked so fast that it would singe some fabrics. He developed an ointment that would reduce the friction… and then turned that ointment into its own business. In 1913, he launched the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Cream Company and the FIRST to invent and sell hair relaxer for African-Americans.
At the same time that he was finding success in hair care products, Morgan sought a patent for a device he hoped would help firefighters avoid the difficulty and damage caused by smoke. In 1914 he was able to sell the product widely by using a number of sales tactics, most notably one where he would enter an enclosed tent full of noxious gas, wearing his device, and emerge unharmed after 20 minutes. The smoke hood was put to the ultimate test when a gas pocket exploded underground in Cleveland, during work on a new tunnel under Lake Erie. Two rescue parties were deployed to save those who had survived the blast, but without protection from the gas 11 of the 18 rescuers died. In the middle of the night, the Cleveland Police called on Morgan, who piled as many devices into his car as he could, and arrived on site with his brother, both still in their pajamas. Together they rescued all 8 people who remained alive. Unrecognized for his heroism at the time, he was nationally honored at the Emancipation Centennial Celebration in Chicago in August 1963
As the only African-American who owned a car in Cleveland, Morgan saw first-hand how dangerous intersections could be. At the time, there were only two signals, stop and go. After witnessing a major accident, he decided that there needed to be a third warning light, what he called "all hold". Patented in 1922 and now used by all, Morgan's Kick Ass stop 3-position traffic signal has been crucial for preventing casualty and saving lives.
Did y'all know that the original Aunt Jemima pancake product actor is a Kick Ass Black Kentuckian? Did you know the world-famous pancake mix is based on her recipe? Well, now you do. Nancy Green was born, raised, and worked in the captivity of a family for whom she made the best flapjacks in the land. In her 40s, she moved with the family to Chicago where her pancakes and her charisma were being noticed as she served at affluent parties and gatherings. Among her fans were executives at the R.T. Davis Milling Company who hired Green to promote their pancake flour product. Her debut as Aunt Jemima was the feature of an interactive exhibit for the pancake flour at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago where she performed the role of a Southern plantation slave. She enthralled audiences as a storyteller, singer, and pancake-maker. Following the success of the World's Fair, Green was contracted to be the face, the personality, and the cook for the major promotional push that followed which included performances at fairs, food shows, and grocery stores; photo shoots for newspaper and billboard advertisements; and the characterization for additional merchandise such as dolls. Five years into their marketing success, the company used Nancy Green's kick ass pancake recipe to make the first ever ready-mix cooking product.
LUCY HICKS ANDERSON
Know anybody from Waddy, Kentucky? That's where trans woman Lucy Hicks Anderson was born and raised in the late 1800s. As a child, she insisted to her mother that she was not a boy and that kick-ass mom realized Lucy was right. Lucy moved with her first husband to California where she was a vital part of the Oxnard community as a socialite, philanthropist, and award-winning chef. She was so beloved that her entrepreneurial endeavor of owning a speakeasy and brothel, though illegal at the time, was overlooked by all officials. At the age of 59, as part of a court case against her business, she was found to be assigned male at birth and charged for fraud. Lucy Hicks Anderson became the FIRST trans woman to defend her identity in court. Her community impact and her legacy as a trans luminary are truly Kick Ass.
Copper engraving by Patrick H. Reason
Henry Bibb used the experience of his enslavement and his escape to educate the masses about the evils of its trade. Born in Shelby County in 1815 he first attempted to escape captivity at the age of 10. At age 29 he succeeded to free himself, settling in Detroit, and began lecturing on anti-slavery. His autobiography The Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb: An American Slave became one of the most popular enslavement narratives prior to the Civil War. In 1851, having fled again, this time to Canada, Bibb published Canada's FIRST Black newspaper, the Voice of the Fugitive, which was instrumental in organizing abolitionists, helping Black US immigrants form new community, and educating white Canadians about anti-slavery activism. Around the same time he developed the Refugee Home Society Settlement, purchasing nearly 2,000 acres of land which was sold to former enslaved African Americans in 25 acre lots on easy terms and provided solidarity, goods, tools, training, protection from slave hunters, and children's education.
Madame Sul-Te-Wan is the FIRST Black actor to sign a film contract, anytime, anywhere. She used her winning placement in a Louisville dance competition to gain regional recognition, and in the late 1890s, when Madame was in her 20s, she formed her own theatrical companies to tour the East Coast. Soon after, she went out to California to be part of the emergent film community. She signed her first paid movie deal (and first paid film work for any Black actor) for her role in Birth of a Nation, having pitched herself directly to D.W. Griffith. Griffith and Hollywood insiders were taken by Madame's charisma and talent which carried her through 63 films in her 4-decade film acting career.
ISAAC BURNS MURPHY
One of the highest paid athletes of his time, Isaac Burns Murphy, known as the Prince of Jockeys, holds the highest Thoroughbred racing winning percentage OF ALL TIME. A friend of Murphy's parents, and prominent Black horse trainer in Lexington, Eli Jordan, began working with 14-year-old Murphy. By the time Murphy was 23, he won his first Kentucky Derby. As a three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1884, 1890, 1891, he was the FIRST inductee to the National Racing Hall of Fame when it began in 1955.
WILLA BEATRICE BROWN
Hailing from Glasgow, Willa Beatrice Brown was very Kick Ass. FIRST Black woman to run for US Congress. FIRST Black woman to earn a pilot license in the US. FIRST Black officer in the US Civil Air Patrol. FIRST woman in the US to have both a pilot's license and an aircraft mechanic's license. Okay, should we go on? She co-founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics, which was the FIRST private aviation training academy owned and operated by African Americans. On top of that, Brown's training of hundreds of Black aviators was the impetus for the creation of the infamous and important Tuskegee Airmen.
LT. COL. ALLEN ALLENSWORTH
Born into slavery, Allen Allensworth was looking for the way out from jump. Though illegal, and though punished for it, he taught himself to read and write as a young kid and attempted several escapes. In the early months of the Civil War, a Union regiment came through Louisville. Working together with the soldiers, Allensworth disguised himself in their uniform and literally marched away into his freedom. After the the war ended he was ordained a Baptist preacher, growing the Centennial Baptist Church in Louisville fivefold which was nationally recognized as a model for reorganization. This recognition, along with his prominent national speaking engagements, earned Allensworth an appointment as US Army Chaplain and at the time of his retirement he had become the FIRST Black Lieutenant Colonel and was the highest ranking African American.
Okay, okay. As you can see there are a lot of kick-ass things about Lt. Col. Allensworth. But, are you ready for this one? Kick Ass Black Kentuckian Allen Allensworth founded and developed the FIRST and ONLY all-Black town in California in 1908. Created as a ranching and farming community, it was a member of the county school district and the regional library system, had its own post office and voting precinct, and laid streets lined with businesses and homes. What did Allen Allensworth call this town? Allensworth, California.
Photo credit: John Ashley
SWEET EVENING BREEZE
Sweet Evening Breeze lived openly as a trans woman, founding the still-thriving Lexington drag culture by organizing and participating in drag and burlesque performances in the early part of the 1900s. Her bold and beautiful confidence was a model for young queer people in and around the Bluegrass as she comfortably strolled through downtown, dined at popular restaurants, and hosted upscale parties in her home. She even would occasionally run out onto the Kentucky Wildcat football field with the cheerleaders where she was greeted with boisterous approval from spectators. Lexington could see the evidence of Miss Sweets' social and political influence when her house was the only one left standing while the rest of her neighborhood was leveled for a gentrifying development.
In a defining moment for the local queer community in the early 1960s, Miss Sweets convinced a judge to overturn an ordinance against wearing gender non-conforming clothing in public. This court appeal occurred after Sweets and another drag queen were arrested and jailed for performing in public. While briefly imprisoned the two of them performed drag for the curious guards. Today, her legacy as a queer activist continues in Lexington with a healthy queer community and with the Sweet Evening Breeze organization in Louisville, which houses and provides foundational services to LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness.
First off, Helen Humes' parents were kick ass. Her dad, John Henry Humes was the FIRST Black attorney in Louisville and her mom, Emma Johnson was a school teacher. Humes got her start with vocals and the piano at age 5. Not even a decade later, as a young teen, Humes recorded her first four blues songs in St. Louis, MO. After finishing her studies back home she returned to the microphone, her versatility as a singer quickly drawing the attention of band leaders and talent scouts. She passed an audition at the Spider Web club in Buffalo, NY after just one brief performance which landed her weekly paid work for singing. Her next regular gig was at the renowned Cotton Club in Cincinnati, where she was approached by Count Basie to replace Billie Holiday in his band. He was offering her her same pay, but with travel, and with a band that wasn't yet famous. Humes passed on the offer in a way only a Kick Ass Kentuckian would... "Oh shucks, I make that here and don't have to go no place!" She joined Count Basie's Orchestra a few years later, when they had grown in popularity. Her career spanned five decades and included stretches as a recording artist for albums and film soundtracks, a film appearance in a musical film by Dizzy Gillespie, performing and touring nationally with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and touring Europe with the first American Folk Blues Festival in 1962.
Early cave exploration and mapping—after the removal of Indigenous Cherokee, Shawnee and Chickasaw nations and tribes—is typically traced back to the the late 1880s. However, Kick Ass Black Kentuckian, Stephen Bishop, was spelunking in Mammoth Cave as early as 1838 and can therefore be called one of the FIRST American cavers. Using a cedar sapling as a beam, Bishop was the FIRST caver to cross a huge pit (called The Bottomless Pit) that no one dared to pass over, thereby discovering the massive connectivity of the longest cave system in the world. In just one year, he had doubled the known map of Mammoth Cave. Not only did he discover, explore, and name areas and 'rooms', he mapped them from memory, meticulously illustrating 10 miles of connected systems, half of which he had discovered on his own. And you know those blind fish and silent crickets on the tour? Bishop was the FIRST caver to discover those too. Enslaved for all but the last year of his life, the fact that Bishop was widely credited for his work at the time is remarkable.
INVENTORS OF FRIED CHICKEN
Yep. That's right. Kick Ass Black Kentuckians invented fried chicken. Enslaved Africans in Kentucky and other non-free states used their blends of seasoning to turn a bland dish into the delicious dish we know it to be. And that famous blend of 11 herbs and spices? Those have been attributed to a Kentuckian named Miss Childers. While there's no definitive evidence that the recipe belonged to this person, you can bet that the mix came from a Kick Ass Black Kentuckian who was cooking for Mr. Sanders.
MARY CUNNINGHAM SMITH
COL. CHARLES YOUNG