Charles Henry Parrish was an anomaly in 1919 when he bought one of the city’s most illustrious properties at Sixth Street just south of Breckinridge.
The Richardson Romanesque home, designed by the renowned architect William T. Dodd, had been built in 1888 for hotelier William Seelbach. It was very much a part of the community of millionaires’ residences that lined those streets of what we now call Old Louisville.
What set the 60-year-old Parrish apart at the time was that he was born a slave, near Lexington. After the Civil War he came to Louisville, enrolling in the Louisville Normal and Theological Institute, Kentucky’s only institution of higher education for blacks — now Simmons College of Kentucky.
In fact, he was the school’s first valedictorian.
He eventually became president of the school, from 1918 until his death in 1931, and was also pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church of Louisville.
His prominent home was passed on to his son, Charles Parrish Jr., who in 1951 became chairman of the sociology department at the University of Louisville, making him the first black professor at UofL.
“There are several sites around campus named in Parrish’s honor,” says local historian Stephen Peterson. In 2012, UofL’s Freedom Park, commemorating the history of African-Americans in Louisville, was named Charles H. Parrish Jr. Freedom Park.
On Sunday, Peterson will tell the story of the Parrish family and their Sixth Street home during a free Louisville Historical League lecture at Simmons College.
The Seelbach-Parrish homesite eventually became an apartment building, like so many other grand old homes in the neighborhood. The neighborhood’s history and tradition had become so blurred that Peterson didn’t know it was a landmark district when he bought a home on the South Sixth Street block in 2010.
“In fact,” he says, “I didn’t even know that the neighborhood is not really Old Louisville at all. It’s the historic Limerick district.”
Limerick is a quaint trapezoid (“shaped like the state of Nevada,” according to Peterson) bordered on the north by Breckinridge Street; on the east by Fifth Street; on the west by the L&N railroad tracks; and at its southern tip by Oak Street. It grew in the 1860s as a shotgun neighborhood for the Irish immigrants who built the railroad (thus the name), before industrialists like Seelbach began to invest in the real estate.
It was the site of Louisville’s original St. Patrick’s Day parades, and also the home neighborhood of Eclipse Park, back in the 1880s and ’90s, when the Colonels were a major league baseball team. Pete Browning, the original Louisville Slugger, and Honus Wagner wore the hometown silks.
It is still the home of Simmons College, recently designated one of the country’s 104 Historically Black Colleges and Universities. “Before the Great Depression,” says Peterson, “the school had been a prominent university, even having departments of law and medicine.”
Limerick gained local historical designation in 1979.
These days, Peterson — whose day job is client delivery analyst for Conifer Health Solutions in Louisville — is chairman of Limerick’s landmark committee. And as part of his effort to spread the word about the historical significance of the neighborhood, he has applied for a historic marker to be placed on the front of the Seelbach-Parrish house.
The Seelbach-Parrish house already has received local landmark designation; Peterson’s effort is aimed at getting the Kentucky Historical Society to bestow a marker on the residence of the first African-American UofL professor. KHS oversees the historical marker program.
Peterson has done significant historic research to show the marker is warranted, immersing himself in records and archives to make the necessary argument.
There are already historic markers in Limerick — in front of the Mary B. Hill school at Sixth and Kentucky; St. Louis Bertrand Church, once the heart and soul of the Irish neighborhood; the York Street library; the Fifth Ward School (now the Monserrat Building) at Fifth and York; and Simmons College.
“I just want to bring some further historical identity to the neighborhood,” says Peterson. “We live in a time when too much appreciation for historic preservation is considered soft-minded and retrogressive.” (He was referring to the Metro Council’s overturning landmark status for a house at 2833 Tremont Drive in the Upper Highlands — the first time the council had overturned a Metro Landmarks Commission designation.)
Peterson hopes one of the attendees at Sunday’s lecture will be Charles Parrish Sr.’s granddaughter, Ursula Parrish Daniels, an educator like her father and grandfather. Peterson believes she’s in her 70s now and is on the administrative staff at Bergen College in Paramus, N.J. She grew up in the Seelbach-Parrish house and is the only remaining family member. Her mother, who was active in the local parks department, died in 2015.
Peterson met Daniels in 2014, when Simmons College of Kentucky received national accreditation. She was a visiting dignitary at the event and Peterson accompanied her to the event and spent some time with her. They even visited her childhood home together.
The Louisville Historical League’s Parrish Family History lecture takes place in Heritage Hall at Simmons College, 1078 Seventh St. The free program starts at 2 p.m.