Nine decades of inspiration, art, and breaking barriers
Written by Janice w. Fernheimer
I first learned about Elmer Lucille Allen a little over a year ago, the way many of us learn new things these days, from a friend’s Facebook posting. That friend just happened to be historian and Bourbon scholar Dr Erin Wiggins Gilliam, who is breaking barriers of her own by researching the historical influences of Black people in the Bourbon industry, but that’s a story worth its own essay. Dr Gilliam had met Ms Allen at Brown-Forman, and identified her as the first Black chemist at Brown-Forman. Simply learning of Ms Allen’s existence and imagining the challenges she overcame to become the first Black chemist in an industry which even today features more men than women in executive positions was enough to inspire me.
I was reminded of Allen and her trailblazing this past February, as I learned of her art exhibit opening at Galerie Hertz from Sherlene Shanklin’s story on WHAS11 (Louisville). Until then, I had had no idea Allen was not only a chemist but also an acclaimed fiber/ceramic artist.
Awestruck by Allen’s power to create I was determined to learn more, and bring her story to as broad an audience as possible. In what follows I hope to do just that.
Elmer Lucille Allen was born in August 1931 to Elmer Johnson Hammonds and Ophelia Guinn Hammonds. She grew up during segregation in the Russell neighborhood of West Louisville, and attended Western Elementary, Madison Junior High, and Central High School. At the age of nine, she was already blazing trails and demonstrating an entrepreneurial, artistic spirit. Having sold the most Girl Scout cookies in her troop, she and some of her original art were featured in Louisville Courier-Journal. Though she didn’t think of herself as an artist per se at that point in time, the determination and creative spirit necessary to become one were already developing nicely.
Through her adolescence she babysat for the Hellers, a Jewish family that owned the Heller Drug Store and lived in the mostly Black neighborhood along with the Fines, another Jewish family who owned a grocery store and also lived in the neighborhood. Reflecting on Black-Jewish relationships in this period, Allen remarks, “Well, they all got along, you know?… there was no… there was no animosity at that time between the two, yeah. I mean, because they were neighbors, you know, and… and you had to depend on them, you know. The drug store, the grocery store, you had to eat, you know?” She continued, “They were all one, you know, because they knew everybody by name when you came in. It was a community, you know?… they knew everybody, and everybody knew them, yeah.”
She recounts how she would take the Hellers’ young daughter Clarice to Shawnee park, a place where Black people were forbidden from using the public restrooms at the time: “Sometimes, you know, we don’t really think about things ourselves until later on in life.”
Allen was no stranger to hard work. Throughout high school she worked in the library, learning the Dewey decimal system, and at one point she imagined she might become a librarian. Though she graduated with honors from high school, in her own words, she “stuttered all the way through.” It wasn’t until a dedicated teacher, Ms Kuykendall, took the time to work with her individually that she learned to speak free from stuttering. During our first interview, she recounted how she practiced her way to uninterrupted speech: “So I learned one, one sentence at a time, and I went home and talked to a mirror, so you add, you make one sentence, and you add another sentence and say that. And so, so I, unless I get mad, I don’t stutter today. I could not be talking to you today if, if I was 18 years old.”
How to speak free from faltering was not the only thing she learned from her teachers. Though few young women her age imagined themselves outside of traditional tracts because in Allen’s words, the only professional paths available to African American women at the time were “to be a school teacher or a nurse,” she took inspiration from her own teachers whom she described as immaculately dressed role models. She pursued higher education first at Louisville Municipal College (1949-1951), and then at the all-female Catholic Nazareth College (now Spalding University) (1951-1953). While Louisville Municipal College was co-ed and all Black (as the Black counterpart to University of Louisville it was the first liberal arts school for African Americans in Kentucky and only the third to open in the entire US), when she joined the cohort of all-women scholars at Nazareth College in 1951, she was one of very few Black students. Although the Day Law, which had prohibited integrated classrooms in Kentucky, was not fully repealed until Brown V. Board of Education overturned it in 1956, Nazareth College graduated its first Black students in 1951, Patricia Lauderdale and Barbara Miller. Allen enrolled at Nazareth in 1951, and described the transition as follows: “… I went from an all-Black school to an all-white school, so it was totally different because you had to fit in, and like I tell everybody now, is that you just have to learn how to adjust and go on, which is what I do now. Now you have to accept who I am. When I come into the room, here I am. Take me as I am, and that’s how I’ve survived all these years.”
Of course, she’s done more than simply survive. Despite the obstacles and challenges she faced by racist norms and policies, Allen has thrived by blazing trails herself and by both building pathways for others to see themselves in new roles and making it possible for them to blaze their own trail. She was one of two Black students who graduated from Nazareth College in 1953; the other was Thelma Burnley. While Burnley pursued library science, Allen earned a Bachelor of Science in general education with a major in chemistry and a minor in math, and states she was unable to get a job in her field because she was Black. She did not let that stop her from finding gainful employment; however, she took the civil service exam and moved to Indiana to become a clerk typist at Fort Benjamin Harrison. Although she aspired to become a certified medical technician, the requirement for additional schooling prevented her from pursuing the path to formal certification. It did not keep her from working in the field, however. After just a few months at Fort Benjamin Harrison, she went on to work as a med tech first at General Hospital, then Methodist Hospital, then Community Hospital, where she helped set up the labs.
She returned to Louisville in 1958 and continued to work in labs in the medical community, first at Children’s Hospital, then American Synthetic and Rubber Company, and then as a chemist in a research team with (Jewish) Dr Felix Bronner who was doing medical and dental research at the University of Louisville. Through connections she made in this lab, she met a woman whose uncle was working at Brown-Forman at the time, “And that’s how I got the job, that’s how I got to Brown-Forman.”
She began working as a chemist at Brown-Forman in April 1966, at a time when few women were in the workplace and those who were there found themselves in mostly secretarial roles. She joined a team of three other women, who worked in the research and development labs on the first floor of the production building: Maggie Boston, Bessie Welsh, Marge Plamp. While Elmer analyzed the whiskies and their raw materials, corn, rye, malt, she said, “No one did the same job. Everybody had their own little job.” She remembers the deep impact of watching the first woman enter the executive role: “And I saw how Lois Mateus went up the ladder… and it’s amazing, you know?” Looking back now, she says, “I’m glad to see women in roles now that weren’t possible years ago.”
One of the things she enjoyed most was the size and family feel of the work environment, “what I really liked about that job… about that building, is that… Brown-Forman was a small company, I passed the office of the president and the vice president every day.” While she “got to know the whole Brown family,” she interacted with some in more professional capacities than others, including now president and managing director of Old Forester, Campbell Brown. As she explains, he “worked in the lab when he younger. And he tells everybody I was his boss.” Her husband, Ray Allen, also worked at Brown-Forman, though in food services, and together they were raising three young children at the time. When I asked her to reflect on how they managed two full-time jobs and raising kids, she said with a laugh, “I just managed. I don’t know. I, sometimes I wonder how I did it myself, you know?”
And yet, she did more than manage. In addition to breaking barriers at work, she was building institutions that broke barriers in her community. When she discovered that one of her sons was unable to play in the Shawnee Little League because they lived South of Broadway, she and her husband decided to form an integrated Little League in Chickasaw Park, which made it possible for their sons and other children like them to play. It had six teams and operated for three or four years; they even went through the paperwork to have it become a certified 501 (c 3). Later on, in the 1980s she founded the Kentucky Coalition for AFRO-American Arts, Inc. and she served as its president for 10 years. During that time the KCAAA created two directories for African American artists in Kentucky, and put on two conferences, one in Louisville and one in Lexington. When it finally folded she decided to donate the remaining funds in the treasury to the Louisville Arts Council.
… She was building institutions that broke barriers in her community
She worked at Brown-Forman for 31 years before retiring in 1997, rising from junior to senior chemist along the way. And before she retired, she had already started on another path that would bring her accolades and success as well as healing and enjoyment – that of an artist. She explains that she took her first ceramics class at Seneca High School in the late 1970s after her youngest son graduated high school, not because she thought about art “in a professional sense” but because she had arthritis in her hands and the doctors recommended ceramics as healing. She went from ceramics to poured mold work, and in 1981, Allen began taking ceramics courses at University of Louisville. Though she earned her Masters of Art in creative arts and ceramics in 2002, with concentrations in ceramics and fiber arts, she continues to take ceramics classes there today, in 2021, at nearly 90 years young. Asked to consider the importance of art Allen says, “It’s maybe some things that you make, it not only helps you to heal, but it might heal somebody else.” On why she creates and the impact she hopes it has on others, Allen remarks, “… I want people to view my art and to get something, take something away from that, that I’ve made. You know… that’s really my goal. And when you sit down and think about art, art is really a continuation of my chemistry work.”
Over the years Allen has received numerous awards in recognition for both her activism and her art, and she is also a Kentucky Colonel. Even as she is coming up for her 90th birthday Allen continues to give back as well, helping to found the Lauderdale/Miller Endowed Scholarships at Spalding University both to honor its first two African American graduates and inspire others to similarly pursue their dreams. She credits her time there with who she has been able to become: “[If] it was not for Nazareth, I would not be where I was, where I am.” She adds, “I think it was important to recognize… Spalding as an institution that has been graduating African Americans for years. It’s not just something that they do now.” The university has rightfully decided to honor her in return by establishing the Elmer Lucille Allen Conference on African American Studies at the institution.