Kentucky Derby Brings Opportunity for Healing and Reconciliation in Louisville

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Image: Andy Lyons/Getty Images.

The scene last Saturday afrernoon in Louisville, Kentucky looked quite familiar to locals. After two years of subdued Derby celebrations, the iconic Churchill Downs hosted a crowd of more than 147,000, resembling races of yesteryear and bringing back a sense of normalcy to a city deeply affected by the events of 2020. 

Louisville has changed since COVID-19 hit the U.S. In March of the same year Breonna Taylor, an aspiring nurse and EMT, died at the hands of local police. And by that summer, Kentucky’s largest city became a pseudo Ground Zero for Black Lives Matter protests. Though the events have forever changed the metropolis, Governor Andy Beshear says his hope is to move toward community healing.

“I get that I will never be able to feel the weight of hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow or segregation,” Beshear tells EBONY. “But I can listen to those who do. And I can try to learn. And we can act together.” 

The governor shares that healing for the people of Louisville must come with reconcilliation. It’s why he’s working with Breonna Taylor’s family and mom to address fractures in the city’s status quo, requiring enhanced law enforcement training for those sworn to serve and protect, and championing a $100 million-dollar project in West Louisville that includes erecting the first hospital for the neighborhood in more than 150 years. 

“We’ll also have one of the largest Goodwill campuses,” Beshear adds. “And we’re going to have more than 300 new jobs in about a three block area of higher education, ensuring that we are providing hope and that everyone has the option to go from high school to the workforce or to higher education. We just want to make sure that while we don’t pick people’s path, they all have one.”

Remaining splinters among some residents exist, but the 148th Kentucky Derby was a welcomed reminder for many that there is life after an upending storm. It was also an opportunity to drive revenue back to the area after two years of decreased Derby participation. While Louisville Tourism is still awaiting the total figure generated by the Derby, a typical Derby weekend brings in roughly $400 million. Louisville’s biggest revenue generator of the year is a game changer for the city and, subsequently, its local Black businesses and residents.

Churchill Downs is the owner and operator of the official Kentucky Derby, but the industry itself, especially in Horse Country, brings in millions. “We think about Derby as the race and the track, but it’s a huge experience around it,” says Beshear. To that end, the Democratic governor has tasked Kentucky’s tourism cabinet with making sure it specifically makes this time period about promoting diversity. That includes hiring diverse contractors and subcontractors, knowing that while they can’t control directly what goes on the track, the state can be intentional about promoting inclusion in the hospitality sector.

 “It’s important that we get it right because the Kentucky Derby is a time when the whole world looks towards Kentucky and we want them to see the very best of who we are as human beings, which means everybody has to be included,” says Beshear. “It means everybody counts and those that are too often left out have to play a part.”

Despite the horse industry contributing significantly to the U.S. economy, very few Blacks benefit financially from the business. Just 3.3 percent of all equestrians are Black and even fewer own horses. Knowing this, Beshear says last year—his second in office and first Derby as governor—he made a concerted push to support the Ed Brown Society, whose goal is to ensure that more Black Kentuckians get involved in the horse industry. 

“It was open for a long period of time [to Black Americans] and then discriminatory laws pushed so many people out of the industry,” Beshear notes. “So this is one that is championed by Ray Daniels, who is a great horse owner and a wonderful leader in so many different areas, as well as another close advisor out of the Lexington market, Greg Harbor, whose family was one of those pushed out of this industry a long time ago and who I appointed to the horse racing commission.” 

While Saturday’s event brought out the beautiful hats, exquisite fashion, and ended with one of the biggest long shots in Kentucky Derby history, Beshear insists that, for him, hearing the crowd roar as the horses come around the last turn is what gets every molecule in his body moving.  “It is a really neat moment that as governor I just kind of step back and watch but appreciate it as a blessing.”

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