Historical marker #2590 notes the significance of Central High School in Louisville. Muhammad Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, attended Central from 1956 until 1960. It was during this time that Ali trained for and won a gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Atwood Wilson, principal of Central High School during this time, recalled Ali as not a particularly diligent student. Whether shadowboxing in the hall or daydreaming in class, Ali did not take his academic studies very seriously. His grades were so bad that a faction of teachers at Central wanted to hold Ali back from graduation. The principal could not stomach being an obstacle in a young Ali’s career. He rose at a staff meeting to proclaim,
“One day our greatest claim to fame is going to be that we knew Cassius Clay or taught him…Do you think I’m going to be the principal of a school that Cassius Clay didn’t finish?...If every teacher here fails him, he’s not going to fail. He’s not going to fail in my school. I’m going to say ‘I taught him!’”
The institution that became Louisville Central High School was dedicated in 1873. It was the first locally publicly funded school for African Americans in Louisville. Initially named the Central Colored School, it started as a large elementary school at the corner of 6th and Kentucky Streets. High school grades were added to the school in 1882. The limited funds for the school came directly from African American residents of Kentucky in the form of property taxes. This system meant that structural economic inequity severely limited the availability of public funds for African American educational opportunities throughout the state. Segregationist regulations allowed the original site to be commandeered in 1884 for the white students in the neighborhood. It was renamed Mary D. Hill School.
Central School moved to existing structures at the corner of 9th and Magazine Streets. The school was officially renamed Central High School in 1892. By the turn of the 20th century, Central had over eight hundred students. Over the course of several decades the location changed several more times until settling at its current location of 11th and Chestnut in 1952.
Louisville schools were legally segregated until 1956, just prior to Muhammad Ali’s attendance, but the legacy of redlining and pervasive fear continued segregation in the Louisville’s public school long after the Brown v. Board of Education decision made official segregation policies illegal. Jefferson County Public Schools were only meaningfully desegregated in the 1970s because of a Supreme Court ordered busing program. African American students from Louisville’s downtown and west side neighborhoods were bussed to predominately white schools and conversely white students were bussed to Central. Louisville’s approach to desegregation in the seventies was different than many other cities and considered more successful. However, the initial implementation of the busing program brought protests by thousands of white people. Some of these protests descended into mob violence. Busing continued until 2007 when active race-based integration methods were deemed unconstitutional.
Central High School continues to educate Louisville high school students today.
The marker reads:
Central High School
In 1873, Central Colored School
opened as a primary school for
African American children. In
1882, secondary grades were added
and Central Colored High School
opened. In 1945, its name
changed to Central High School.
Until 1975, when court-ordered
busing began, it was the only
predominately African American
public high school in the city.
Central High School
Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay,
graduated from Central High
School in 1960, the same year he
won an Olympic gold medal in
Rome. Ali would run alongside
the city bus, which transported
students, and race it to school.
Other notable alumni from
Central High School include
Elmer Lucille Allen, Alberta O.
Jones, and Lenny Lyles.
This marker was dedicated on October 24, 2019.