Historic marker #2591 denotes Chickasaw Park, a public park on Louisville’s west side. While living in the neighborhood, Muhammad Ali ran the trails and paths in the park. Neighbors recall seeing Ali running through the park with his 1960 Olympic Gold Medal around his neck. Ali’s childhood home on Grand Avenue is 1.4 miles from the park.
Chickasaw Park is named for the indigenous people who once inhabited parts of far western Kentucky as well as vast swathes of Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. The Chickasaw, like other southeastern and midwestern tribes were removed from their homeland. Today the Chickasaw are a living, thriving, vibrant nation located south of Oklahoma City.
What was to become Chickasaw Park was once the estate of John Henry Whallen. Whallen was born in 1850 in New Orleans. As a boy, he served in the Confederate Army, carrying gun powder, and as a courier for John Hunt Morgan. In the 1870s he moved to Louisville and operated successful burlesque theaters there and elsewhere. In the 1880s he became an important power broker in the Democratic Party in Louisville. Though he never held elected office himself, he held the reigns of power in the city until the 1910s and was known as the “Buckingham Boss,” a reference to his Buckingham Theater. Whallen relied on corruption, fraud, and intimidation—particularly of African American voters to manipulate the strings of power. He died in 1913.
White City Amusement Park was open on the land from 1907-1910—a subsequent Riverview Park lasted until 1912—and became home to Kentucky’s first state fairgrounds in 1908. The City of Louisville began development of the land as Chickasaw Park in 1923, but it was not completed until the 1930s. It joined existing large parks named for American Indian tribal groups. Shawnee, Iroquois, and Cherokee (Algonquin and Seneca were added in 1928) were designed by the renowned landscape architect and visionary Fredrick Law Olmsted. While Olmsted himself died in 1903, his sons continued his work under the name Olmsted Brothers and the firm designed Chickasaw Park.
In 1924 the City of Louisville designated Chickasaw Park as the only major park in which African American Louisvillians would be allowed. Segregation in Louisville parks system remained until 1955 when in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and under pressure from a lawsuit filed by African American residents and the NAACP, the city desegregated all city parks.
One unique feature of the park is its clay tennis courts. Today they are the only publicly accessible clay tennis courts in the region. Prized by tennis players as more forgiving then cement hard courts, the clay courts are a home to the West Louisville Tennis Club. For about a century, the club has used the courts and cared for them. In 2019, the club, when faced with a shortfall in municipal maintenance funds, galvanized support to raise the money needed to restore the clay courts for future generations. This effort was supported by the Olmsted Parks Conservancy, an organization whose mission is to preserve Olmsted’s parks and legacy.
The marker reads:
Chickasaw Park was designed by
Olmsted Brothers, a well-known
landscape architecture firm. The
61-acre Chickasaw Park was the
only city run park open to African
Americans in Louisville from 1924
until city parks were desegregated
in 1955. It remains a popular
meeting place for west Louisville
residents and features the city’s
only public clay tennis courts.
Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay,
would train at Chickasaw Park. He
would often wear old army boots
and run to and from his home at
3302 Grand Avenue, even before
school in the mornings. Neighbors
saw Ali run at this park, wearing
his Olympic garb and gold medal,
after he returned home to
Louisville from the 1960 Rome
This marker was dedicated on October 24, 2019.