NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles highlighting African-American history throughout Louisville’s parks system.
By Walter Munday
In the aftermath of one of our city’s worst natural disasters in recorded history (1974 Tornado), a beacon of light shined along the banks of the Ohio River in northeast Louisville. Approximately three months after that infamous tornado, neighborhood and church leaders joined elected and park officials to dedicate the then-new Hays Kennedy Park on July 27, 1974.
Before Jefferson County Fiscal Court purchased the 78 acres in February 1969, the land was originally owned by James S. and Bettie L. Taylor (now Bettie Johnson). Mr. Taylor was the son of James T. Taylor, a local entrepreneur who grew up in Harrods Creek to become a farmer, a school bus driver, a road and bridge builder, quarry owner and president of the James T. Taylor Real Estate Company. The elder Taylor is credited for developing the traditionally African-American neighborhood following the purchase of the A. E. Shirley farm (Shirley Avenue) around 1920. He is believed to have been the state’s first licensed African American realtor. The younger Taylor and his wife purchased the property adjacent to his father’s land from the Bass Family (Bass Road).
Prior to purchase of the land, the old Jefferson County Playground and Recreation Board, under the leadership of Charlie Vettiner, helped coordinate recreational programs at the Harrods Creek Recreation Center; formerly the Jacob Colored School building on Jacob School Road. Mr. Vettiner believed strongly that it was important for the communities surrounding those parks to be actively involved with recreational programs. He believed that partnering with the community would instill ownership in the programs and the parks. Later, the Prospect-Harrods Creek Optimist Club and the Prospect-Harrods Creek Park and Recreation Association, Inc. stepped forward.
One of the most faithful volunteers was Ms. Hays Robinson Kennedy. Ms. Kennedy was a “nurturing soul” who loved children. Not having any biological children of her own, she adopted all of the kids in the neighborhood – black and white. She coordinated activities for the young people in the neighborhood. Ms. Edith Edmondson, a lifelong resident of the Harrods Creek, was one of those neighborhood kids, and vividly remembers Ms. Kennedy and the cross-town softball games between the J-town and Newburg Centers.
“Ms. Kennedy loved kids. She was definitely committed to volunteer service. She worked hard to coordinate activities for the kids and raise money for programs and playground equipment,” Ms. Edmonson said.
Ms. Kennedy was born Hays Robinson to Henry and Louise Robinson on March 1, 1893, in Louisville, Kentucky. She was the sixth of nine children. She was a longtime member of Lampton Baptist Church, and started attending Harrods Creek Baptist Church when she married Calvin Kennedy on November 23, 1923. Mr. Kennedy was the brother of Rev. Harrison Kennedy who was a founding member and pastor of Harrods Creek Baptist Church on River Road. Mr. Kennedy died in October of 1966. At Harrods Creek Baptist Church, she participated as a Watchcare member for 45 years before she moved her membership permanently as part of a promise to Rev. C. Owens, her pastor at Lampton Baptist Church who asked her not to move her membership as long as he lived.
For most of her life, Ms. Kennedy performed domestic work. Ms. Lonzetta Howard, a long-time member of Harrods Creek neighborhood, remembers working with her at W.L. Lyons and Sally Brown’s home. She remembered that she was such a loving person. Ms. Kennedy also worked for more than 20 years at St. Francis in the Fields Church on Wolf Pen Branch Road from 1948 to until 1971. Ms. Kennedy left St. Francis when her sister’s illness necessitated her care.
Meme Sweets Runyon, Executive Director, River Fields, fondly remembers Ms. Kennedy when she attended nursery school at St. Francis in the Fields Church. Ms. Runyon remembers how kind and gentle Ms. Kennedy was. “She was adored by everyone,” Runyon said. She went on to say that one of the things she remembers most about Ms. Kennedy was that she used to “flip” cookies to her while she was at school.
On November 15, 1972, the Prospect-Harrods Creek Optimist Club was formed. Its charter membership was intentionally developed to be racially-balanced with the purpose of “busying themselves with youth programs in the area”, as noted in the Prospect News, a local newspaper published in the area. Some of the members included: Matthew Coomer, Stuart Kane, Cordell P. Franklin, Alex Jones, Frank Clay, Sr., F. Deedom Alston, William Kellar, William E. Taylor, Charles Wilson, Bill Bartley, James Bond, George A. Roberts, Martin Dunbar, Jr. and Steve Rauh.
Their first big project was to develop the newly identified park. Several local churches, including Green Castle Baptist Church, Harrods Creek Baptist Church, and St. Francis in the Field Episcopal Church, joined the Prospect-Harrods Creek Optimist Club, and the Metropolitan Parks and Recreation Department to name the park. On Saturday, July 27, 1974, their dreams were realized with the dedication of the Hays Robinson Kennedy Park. A memorial now stands at the park with the following biblical passage printed on it which reads “suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for such is the Kingdom of God”.
On that day, Congressman Ron Mazzoli, Marlow Cook (representing Governor Julian
Carroll), County Judge-Executive Todd Hollenbach and County Commissioners Tom Helm, Ray Kirchdorfer and Glen McDonald, William Summers, and Metro Parks Director Carl Bradley, joined area clergy, neighbors and friends as they gathered to honor Ms. Hays Kennedy, and take part in the dedication service.
Following the dedication, the momentum continued to move forward. The Prospect-Harrods Creek Park and Recreation Association was formed, and even the Hays Kennedy Park Foundation was created in the late 70’s and early 80’s which raised money to build the concession stand and some of the courts at the park. Their big dream was to raise enough money to build a community center, but unfortunately that never happened. Two names prominent for spearheading the fundraising efforts are Ms. Velma Booth and Lois Troyer McGrath.)
After more than a half-century of service to the Harrods Creek neighborhood Ms. Kennedy passed away on January 15, 1985, at the age of 91. A Courier-Journal article (date/author unknown) I found in our files here at Metro Parks highlights Ms. Kennedy’s volunteer service. The short article is titled “Fund-raiser for Children”. It calls attention to Ms. Kennedy’s simple fundraising techniques, which often included regular collecting of bottles along the side of the road, and organizing fish fries and ice cream socials, all to raise money for playground equipment and youth programs.
Her love and commitment to helping others resounds loudly through the many voices and memories of those with whom I spoke who remembered Ms. Kennedy. While many of our parks carry the name of Indian tribes, former politicians, explorers, and philanthropists, Hays Kennedy Park bears the name of a “good shepherd” whose unyielding sacrifice and perseverance are an everlasting testament to her legacy.
A famous quote from a famous French/Cuban poet comes to my mind. It reads…
“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
Hays Kennedy Park is located off River Roa, Bass Road to Beachland Beach Road. It has a paved walking path, a picnic shelter with restrooms, lighted tennis courts, basketball courts, new playground, ball-fields and so much more. Hays Kennedy Park is adjacent to the Garvin Brown Preserve, a 46-acre nature preserve owned and preserved by River Fields. Garvin Brown Preserve is open to the public from dawn until dusk daily. Please take time out to visit Hays Kennedy Park and/or one of our 121 other parks.