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Michael Jones: Hello, this is Michael L. Jones. I'm interviewing Michael L. Meeks, Executive Administrator of Louisville Metro's--is it, I forget.

Michael Meeks: The Office of Equity.

MJ: Office of Equity, I'm sorry about that.

MM: No, that's all right.

MJ: July 3rd at 11:04 a.m. So how are you doing today, Mr. Meeks?

MM: I'm doing very well. How are you today?

MJ: I'm doing good.

MM: Good, good.

MJ: And this interview is for the Metro Housing Coalition and University of Louisville's Unfair Housing Oral History Project. So I wanted to start out 1:00talking a little bit about your family and growing up, because you come from a prominent local family. And so I know your father was a Marine?

MM: Yes, he was a Montford Point Marine, one of the first African American Marines that were--he actually volunteered back in World War II. They were stationed at Camp Lejeune, and they were--when he entered the Marines, he was actually part of the group that was instrumental in forming the camp.

They had to build their own facilities and it's my understanding that it was kind of out of a swampy area. So they were less than ideal conditions and probably less than ideal supplies and everything else. But it was a pretty 2:00horrific experience going through that for him. But yes, he was a Montford Point Marine.

MJ: And what were your parents' names?

MM: Florian and Eloise Meeks. Yes, Mom was the consummate stay at home mother. She actually went to Municipal College for a period of time until she met Dad, and they started a family and she stayed at home and worked with all of us.

MJ: So were they originally from Louisville?

MM: No, my mother is from Cleveland--was from Cleveland, Tennessee and my father from Owenton, Kentucky.

MJ: And how did they end up coming to Kentucky?

MM: Well Dad after--I think about the fourth or fifth grade--maybe the sixth 3:00grade, they weren't educating African Americans in Owenton at that time. So he had to go to Lincoln Institute. After the Marines, he ended up coming to Louisville and staying with my uncle. I guess he would have been my great-uncle, and I think that's when--about the time they met, although there may have been--he may have done something right after that, I'm not sure.

I don't know if he had spent the whole time in Louisville, but he met Mom about that time. Mom was going to school, and they fell in love and got married very quickly and started the family. He went on to serve in Korea after that.


MJ: And so what part of Louisville were they living in?

MM: Well they were originally in Cotter Homes, and they eventually moved to College Court. After Dad came back from the Korean War, he was able to purchase a home at 28th and Virginia when we--the house that we still own.

MJ: And so is that where you were born? They were living there at least when you were born.

MM: Yes, yes. I think they purchased it in about 1955 or so, in between my brother next to me and I. So they purchased it in about '55 or '56. I was born in '58.


MJ: Okay, and what was the community like when you were growing up?

MM: It was a wonderful community. We had neighbors who were very--very close to us. There was--you know, every--all of the neighbors had an interest in the other neighbors. There were a lot of kids in the area, enough to have a full football team and full basketball team and whenever the season changed, we would always change games. But there were--it was a very healthy and wholesome village, I would say.

For example, the Virginia Avenue Elementary School, the elementary school I went to, the principal lived across the street. There were probably three or four teachers and college professors that lived in the area. There were professionals. There was Dr. Grace M. James who had an office there on the 6:00corner. It was just a--it was a very--it was a picture perfect neighborhood to me. All African American and just a wonderful neighborhood.

MJ: And how many siblings do you have?

MM: I've got four siblings. There's my sister, who's the oldest, then there's--that's Renelda. Florian the III, who is--they're actually the same age for about 17 days. Then there's Reginald, then myself, and we've got a younger brother, Kenneth. And as a matter of fact, earlier today, about an hour ago, we 7:00were all on a conference call together. We do that once a month.

MJ: And so a lot of your family members have been very politically active. I wonder is that something like political consciousness that was brought up in your home or it's community responsibility?

MM: It was very much the community responsibility, and we got it both from our mother and our father. Mom was very community conscious, President of the PTA, and she was one that was always doing for someone else or someone else's child. I can remember after school, my mother would--we had a station wagon and this was before busing and anything like that, but I can remember going around to different houses dropping off kids. It's just something that she did.

She was just always involved and always stressed to us that we had to help our neighbors. For example, if it snowed, I knew that my job was to shovel both 8:00neighbors--their yards, and I could not accept any money for it. It's just something that happened. And then with Dad, Dad was a Tuskegee Institute graduate, and he was always reading, constantly reading.

We as a matter of fact just recently moved all of his books and things from his office in the house to another place. So we've got them in storage as a matter of fact. But we just did that recently. He was always reading and always talking to us about current events, of course the Bible. He was very politically astute. 9:00So I think that's where it really comes from. It comes from our parents, definitely.

MJ: So what did your father do for a living after he left the military?

MM: He came back to Louisville and worked for the post office. He worked for the post office and had a small business--construction business, and because his trade--by trade was--he was a carpenter by trade. The construction business was--it was what we would term a--kind of a handyman service nowadays, because he did a lot of painting, he did a lot of interior work, a lot of roof work, just carpentry work--basic carpentry work. So yeah that's what he did.


MJ: And so you talked about how kind of idyllic your neighborhood was growing up. Is there a point when it started to change?

MM: After the riots in '67/'68 or so--

MJ: When Dr. King was killed?

MM: Yes, yes. It was '68?

MJ: Yeah.

MM: Yes, that was kind of a mock turning point because prior to that time, we pretty much had everything we needed in the community. There was the A&P Store a half a block away. You had Vine Records. You had a jewelry store. You had at least two, maybe three of the five and dime stores. There was restaurants and 11:00this was around 28th and Dumensil, 28th and Virginia. There was a laundromat, a library, a gas station, it was pretty much a community.

If there was anything we needed, we could get, you know, right in the area. After the riots, we noticed that it became more of a mobile neighborhood, where if we needed something, we would tell the neighbors, "Okay, we're going to the store to get this," and we had to physically get in the car and go and pick up more things for neighbors too. During that time, the neighborhood was getting older. But that was the first turning point.

Most of those businesses did not come back, and we noticed that the neighborhood 12:00just started changing as the older folks died off. It became more renters that came in that we didn't really know or were not really around to get to know because they had jobs elsewhere and fewer kids as well. So that was about the time it really started to change.

MJ: So how old were you when the riots happened?

MM: I was about 10 years old.

MJ: So were you aware of what happened or what was going on while it was--

MM: Yes, yeah. My older two siblings were pretty involved, as a matter of fact, my sister was expelled from the University of Louisville where she was attending 13:00because they took over the President's Office protesting the fact that there were no black tenured professors. She was one of the two, I think, maybe Senator Neal and her were invited back, but she elected not to go back. I think she went down to Tuskegee maybe, or Pratt, one of the two. I think she went to Tuskegee first and then eventually graduated from Pratt.

MJ: How did your parents feel about that? (laughs) About her getting expelled?

MM: Yeah, no, they were not very happy, at all. (laughter) And there was always tension there because my sister was very intelligent, very active, very vocal. My parents were more laid back, and they didn't appreciate her being so radical. 14:00(laughs) But looking back on it, I think they respected the stance that she took on those issues, because the situation became so untenable in terms of race relations that even they had to--they had to take a stand as well. I can remember them being involved in some of the protests.

MJ: And these are protests that occurred after the riots?

MM: Yes, yes, there were always--I think the riots were individuals at a breaking point, but the nonviolent protests of the early '60s and the Martin 15:00Luther King's--his model was still there. So we utilized that to get other things done, for example, we had marches. I can remember to get a bridge--a pedestrian bridge across Virginia Avenue for the school kids because the city wouldn't provide it--or the Department of Transportation wouldn't provide it. And we had to stage demonstrations in order to do that.

I remember marching down with the posters and things, but that model, that nonviolent protest, was a successful model for all of us in a lot of different areas.

MJ: So as your neighborhood changed after the riots, and you were involved in all these nonviolent protests, how old were you then when you were doing that?


MM: That was during the--maybe a couple of years after--so I was probably 12, 13--11, 12, 13 years old.

MJ: So did you think that that kind of was the awakening of your political consciousness?

MM: I think I was probably awake before then to a certain extent, because we always--one of the things we would always do at home, we always watched the news at night. So even at a very young age, Dad would sit in front of the TV and even if I wasn't listening to what was the individual stories, just the fact that the outside world was coming into our house from 6:00 to 6:30 every day. And of 17:00course the newspapers that we were getting, and Dad would talk about current events as well.

MJ: And where did you go to high school?

MM: I went to duPont Manual High School. I went to the Manual Junior High as well. So I was there from 1970 to 1976. Took me six years to get out of high school. (laughter)

MJ: So what was the school like then?

MM: Manual was one of the largest, if not the largest school in the city. There was a large contingency of blacks, but it was a majority white school. The administration was virtually all white. We did have a black assistant principal and a few black teachers, but not very many. So for me coming from Virginia 18:00Avenue, which was an all-black school, all black teachers, black principal, it was kind of a culture shock.

But--and as a hyperactive kid who always got in trouble, I got in more trouble when I went to junior high school. Of course the age, it was just the age of getting--you have a tendency--boys have a tendency to get in trouble at that age. With kind of a special needs hyperactive kid, I got in a lot of trouble. (laughs) At Virginia Avenue, they knew the kid. They knew the child. They knew how to calm the child down. They knew what to do, but that information was not transferred.


So it took me until the ninth grade to really settle down and realize, "Okay, I'm in school to learn." I credit that with being in sports as well, taking--sapping a lot of that energy, but once it happened in about the ninth grade, that's when I really blossomed in terms of my academics and the extra-curricular activities as well.

MJ: So did any of the racial tension that was happening in the city make its way into the school?

MM: Not in terms--not that I noticed in terms of the other students. But in terms of the teachers, yes. I do remember teachers who, for me at the age, I just thought they were mean. Not all of them, but a few of them. You knew the 20:00teachers that were just not right. They treated certain kids better than other kids, and it was primarily along racial lines. I had trouble with some teachers that were prejudiced and the same thing with the administration.

There were assistant principals that were unfair. In the--I don't know, maybe the eleventh grade or so, I attempted to start a Black Student Union there, and the principal called me in the office and said, "Listen, you're going to stop this right now. I'm going to suspend you. You're going to be expelled from school. You won't be able to graduate. You won't be able to come back to any school in Jefferson County if you don't stop it."

Of course as a young kid when the principal threatens you like that, you take it seriously. But that was just--to me I think it had to do with race as well. It 21:00just--those type things.

MJ: What about your white classmates. Did you like visiting in their homes, or have like any close relationships that way?

MM: I had friends. I had white friends that were--that I was close to. Never visiting homes at all, but in school I was--we were good friends. I felt comfortable with white friends just as well as my black friends and part of that I can credit to my summers away from Louisville.

I think 1969 was the first year I went to this summer camp in Vermont and my 22:00siblings all went to the same camp. Our family has been up there for decades starting in about 1960. So we would spend our summers up there. In that respect, our family was a bit different. So I had no problems with the white kids.

MJ: So what year did you graduate from Manual?

MM: '76.

MJ: Okay, so busing was just starting then?

MM: It started in '75, but the class of '76 were--we were exempt.

MJ: Okay. Were you around for any of the tension involved in that in instituting--

MM: I mean, after--well, I left in '76 to go to--went to Morehead State, so I 23:00was in Eastern Kentucky during--and I'm assuming that in '76 when they actually started busing, there were continued problems. And I do remember reading about the problems, Representative Dottie Pretty chaining herself to the telephone pole, that kind of stuff.

That stuff happened right after I left, but there was a lot of racial tension before that and it was bad in the early '70s as we started progressing toward busing, just the racial tensions, period. I remember I was a part of Children's Theater and after practice one day, I'm walking down 4th Street going to the bus 24:00stop and a car rides by and, "Hey, go home nigger."

You know, that type of--but that really didn't happen very often, primarily because I stayed in my--I had everything I needed in my neighborhood. So I really wasn't exposed to a lot of the racism in the city.

MJ: So how did you find Eastern Kentucky when you went to Morehead?

MM: Appalachian folks are kind of a different breed. They have more in common with urban people than a lot of other people than rich average middle-class people. Some of them don't really know it. (laughs) But realistically they do, and I got along with everybody up at Morehead. Morehead was a very enclosed environment. Most people were--I'm probably overstepping my bounds there, but by 25:00the time I got to Morehead, I was really into my academics.

And I knew--and which I can credit that to my education at Manual. I knew how to study. I knew the mechanics. I had an interest in learning and that was further nurtured at Morehead. I had a double major in government and history and almost a minor in communications.

There wasn't a lot of--there was a lot of partying to be had there if you wanted to partake, but I kind of made--took pride in not doing that and spending more 26:00time studying before going to the party and going late, or not going at all. And there were a lot of people like that. There were a lot of people that were really into the academics at Morehead.

MJ: What attracted you to Morehead rather than say going to U of L?

MM: (Sighs) Friends, realistically. I had some friends that--at Manual that were planning on going up there, and they said, "Hey, we're going to go to Morehead." I said, "Okay. Maybe I'll go too." I really didn't invest a whole lot in to where I was going to go to college. I knew I was going to go, and it's really strange because all of my siblings, we all went to the same elementary school but went to junior high schools, high schools, colleges, different professional schools for the most part.


I just knew that I was going to go to college, and so I didn't invest a lot of time and energy into where. I don't know if it was a mistake or not but that's just the way it happened and it's worked out fine, I think.

MJ: Yeah, and so when you would come home, what was going on your neighborhood? Or a little culture shock? (laughs)

MM: The neighborhood was hemorrhaging because the older folks were dying off. The properties were going downhill. They were being sold to individual owners that didn't live in the neighborhood, maybe not even in the state. They weren't reinvesting in property upkeep, so these large Victorian beautiful homes on 28:00Virginia Avenue which used to be just such a--I mean it looked like what you would--what we would look at, Cherokee Park, that area, the Highlands, it used to be like that.

These huge homes with families in them that took care of their property, and then as these homeowners died off and renters came in, you could tell the homes that were rented. Dead trees, gutters falling down, and--it was really disturbing, distressing, disappointing as a college kid to come back home and see this done to the neighborhood.


And these businesses that were in the Parkland area that did not come back, still boarded up after years, eventually the library closed, the gas stations and laundromats and--it became a neighborhood in distress so unnecessarily. But that's--you could argue that that was by design with redlining the interstate that came through that cut through the neighborhood.

It's a shame that urban planners designed it that way, but it was a way of social control in my opinion. It was a way of keeping black folks in their own 30:00areas. There is a video interview of Mayor Farnsley who admitted that this urban renewal was designed to keep blacks in their neighborhoods. It worked and this is the system that they created, and it's up to them to clean it up.

MJ: Why is your family held on to your home in the neighborhood? Because you all are very successful. You could have moved somewhere else, but you stayed with it.

MM: My parents lived there until maybe the late '90s, and we were able to build a--the late 1990s, we were able to build them a log home on the family farm down 31:00in Tennessee. We've got 27 acres on some additional land, and Moms one day said, "I'd really like to have a log cabin down here." And Mom never asked for anything in her whole life. So I got together with my sister and my brothers and we were able to build a log home for them down there, and they spent most of their--the rest of their lives down there.

They moved back right before Dad passed, and Mom stayed in the house and she passed about five years ago or so. Actually it hasn't been five years, it's been three years ago. My brother next to me, Reginald, is living in the house now. It's just the family home, and so we're going to turn everything over to him.


MJ: After you left Morehead, when did you actually come back to Louisville?

MM: Well after Morehead, I knew I was not ready for--to tackle the world. So I'd planned on working on a master's degree or going to law school, and I decided law school's probably harder so I went to Howard University School of Law and was up there for four years, roughly four years. I came back, worked for Legal Services for a couple of years, and then took a job with the Legislative Research Commission in Frankfort.

I was working with the License and Occupations Committee writing state laws. I did that for 11 years, became a committee staff administrator, and retired from 33:00there in 2006. I was a lobbyist for about five years, small business owner, and when I was asked to come and work for the city. So that's been my professional journey.

MJ: And so when you were at Howard, did you notice some of the same things that were happening in the West End, happening in Washington to the black community?

MM: In D.C. during that time, and this was in the early 1980s, I was there from 1980 to 1983-1984, that was a transitional time I think for the United States. 34:00The economy wasn't that good if I remember correctly, and there was a lot of poverty. The city itself was primarily--it's primarily a black city. It was pretty distressing because I do remember when I first got there, there was a landmark case that had to do with the mentally ill and the city's ability to keep them in jail or confined.

So there were a lot of people out on the streets living over subway grates in the winter time to keep warm. It was tough living. Yes, there were a lot of 35:00similarities with the plight of African Americans in America. You could definitely tell that African Americans were oppressed, particularly in D.C.

MJ: So what year did you move back to Louisville?

MM: I believe it was '84. It was the beginning of '84, the end of '83. So I moved back to Louisville. We had some rental property, and I was able to move into that home which was at 38th and River Park. It's a duplex, and I was kind of the manager of the other apartment. It's a blessing that my father--my 36:00parents were able to help us, and they had been able to--they were able to help all of us in our own individual ways as we needed help.

And that was the blessing of being in the middle class. Dad worked very hard too, and he was very wise and a good steward of his resources. He was able to help us all out.

MJ: You mentioned that you were a business owner. What was your business?

MM: Special event coordinators--in 1995, a friend of mine told me that I could make some extra money driving during Derby. So I applied for a part-time 37:00position driving limousines at Cosmopolitan Coach Company. Well my first job, and this was right before Derby in '95, my first charter they had me in a town car. There was a group of five town cars and we were transporting executives, and it happened to be executives from Visa USA.

So all five of these chauffeurs and town cars became good friends with the President of Visa USA, Carl Pascarella. He came back that next year and asked for the same chauffeurs, as he did the following year. And he suggested to us 38:00that we start our own company. Well, we did that after four years of transporting him, and we all became good personal friends and he said he was going to stay with our company for as long as he comes to Louisville. Even to this day, we have an ongoing contract with Carl Pascarella. So we've been doing this for over 25 years.

MJ: So is this just a Derby thing--

MM: Yeah, just a Derby. Now when he was President of Visa, we had--all of their sweepstakes winners. We had probably--I think we had two motor coaches. This is during the Derby event. We had some mini buses. We had sedans. We had a few limousines as well. It was a big operation and eventually when he resigned from 39:00Visa, I took that opportunity to downscale because it is a tremendous feat. I take my hat off to anybody that provides transportation in Louisville, Kentucky during the Kentucky Derby because it is a miracle. (laughs)

MJ: Is it--do you think it's hard for black businesses to kind of--to get into the Derby, the money that's generated during Derby?

MM: Yes, definitely. It is tough on black businesses in our community, period. There are--of the businesses in the city, I think if I remember correctly, 40:00there's only about 2.8 percent minority-owned businesses. It's unacceptable. I do know that the current mayor has put a lot of effort in to assisting minority businesses, including assisting with incubators and seed money and a lot of different things.

But we haven't found the key in our community to help our black businesses. We've got to do better with African American businesses in Louisville, Kentucky. We just have to do better.

MJ: Is it mostly access to capital that is the problem?


MM: Well, you know, during this time, we've got an opportunity with the ART, American Rescue Funds that's coming from the federal government. We've got an unprecedented opportunity to give African American businesses money, and we will see in the very near future whether or not that occurs. If it doesn't occur, then we know that there is a problem.

There's more of a problem than we are even aware, because there is no reason that African American businesses in Louisville, Kentucky--there's no reason why they should be denied any access to capital. They should be able to go downtown 42:00and talk to people in economic development and come to an agreement and present their proposals and have an equal opportunity. Because we know that there are millions and millions of dollars coming into this community for businesses, and if black businesses are not getting them, then shame on all of us.

MJ: Okay, so were you in Metro Government when merger happened?

MM: No, I was still in Frankfort with the Legislative Research Commission, but I did serve on that as staff on that committee, the merger committee.


MJ: And how do you feel that merger has impacted the black community here in Louisville?

MM: Well it was one of the concerns that we had during merger. We knew that that the black vote, the black power, the black influence would be diluted. However we knew that the city would be a stronger city for it. It's kind of a situation where--you hate to put it this way, but you are sacrificing or you're giving the African American community is giving to the city in order to make the city better.


It's just another sacrifice that African Americans have made to this country, to governments, and hoping that it's the right decision, hoping that in the end, that society will do right by African Americans, and it's a question that's not answered yet. It's still being debated. I think this past administration at the federal level, the past president, really set us back in terms of our progress. The president was able to bring out of the woodwork the worst in our society.


We are going to have to get over that. Sometimes you have to take a step back in order to move forward, and my hope is that White America will realize that we do much better when we do work together. We're not always going to get what we want but look at the big picture. Look at our Democracy. Donald Trump, the former president, took us to the brink of a collapse of our Democracy, and White America, these individuals that support him, I think will eventually wake up and say, "This was a mistake. Let's all do better." That's what I'm hoping. That's 46:00what I think what a lot of people are hoping.

MJ: The city has made a big investment in West Louisville, particularly Russell Revitalization. It came up a lot during the unrest surrounding Breonna Taylor, and I wondered do you see a connection between housing and policing in our community?

MM: A connection between housing and policing?

MJ: Yeah.

MM: Well housing is a basic necessity, and there are very serious problems with gentrification. There are problems with the quality of housing. There are a lot of issues with housing in our community. Yes, there is a connection. There is a 47:00serious problem with over policing, I think. But the current administration is taking steps to address these concerns, I think.

Whether or not we are doing enough, I think the jury is still out there. But I do know that the current police chief has some really good ideas. I do know she's very sincere. I do know that there are a lot of people in our community that will trust her and give her the benefit of the doubt.

I'm hoping that we as a community will allow her the grace to get established, 48:00to get her ideas out, to have her policies implemented, because there have been a lot of--there are bad apples in every basket, and we've got to get those bad apples out. And I think eventually they will be eliminated.

MJ: So when all the protests started over George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, did it take you back to '68? Did you see some of the same issues that happened in your neighborhood?

MM: Yes, it's the sense of frustration. It's the sense of helplessness. It's the 49:00sense of outrage and as a--because of my position, I was not able to--I did not feel comfortable being out there protesting with them, but I will tell you, my heart was out there. And behind the scenes, whatever could be done, whatever ideas that could be floated, whatever arguments that could be made, we tried to make them in-house and tried to get the administration to understand the position of the demonstrators. Yes, but it did take me back to those days.


MJ: Okay, well that's all the questions I had. Is there something I didn't ask you about that you think is pertinent for this discussion?

MM: Well in terms of housing, I think that every person deserves to live in a home that's comfortable. That's safe. They deserve to live in a neighborhood that's healthy; that provides amenities for them to not have to travel miles and miles away just to get groceries or fresh fruits. We've come a long way, but 51:00there's a long way that we have to go in terms of making people feel comfortable in their own homes.

So I think we've made a good start, but we can't ease up off the gas pedal at this point. Louisville's a great place to live. It's a great place to raise a family. We do have a problem with violence. There is an element of our society that does not realize that guns kill people, and people don't come back from the dead. This thinking in our society is going to have to be addressed.


I fault the gun manufacturers, and I fault the gun distributors. I fault the legislators for not taking a stand. We have got to reduce the number of guns on our streets, particularly in urban areas. Yes, there's a right to carry a gun if you are qualified to do it that's guaranteed by the Constitution, but there has to be some limitations, and our courts have to stand up for those limitations. Our legislators have to take a stand, and I'm hoping that particularly in urban areas that we get a handle on this violence. That's about it.

MJ: All right, thank you very much for your time today.


[End of interview][0:52:57.9]