The Western Branch Library will celebrate the career of chemist and ceramic artist Elmer Lucille Allen on Saturday, Feb. 2, at 2 p.m. The program is the first in the Pillars of Louisville series, which throughout the year will spotlight Louisville residents who have not received the public recognition they merit.
Pillars of Louisville is part of Lean Into Louisville, an initiative designed to confront the city’s legacy of discrimination and inequality. The Louisville Free Public Library is one of the city’s Lean Into Louisville partners.
Western Branch Manager Natalie Woods said the Pillars of Louisville will focus on a diverse group of individuals, many of them minorities, whose impact on the city deserves more attention.
“I’m looking at it like an oral history project,” Woods said. “The honorees can come share their stories and answer questions so the audience can learn why we considered them for this program. A lot of people know Elmer Lucille Allen already, but I think everyone should know her story. That’s why she is the first one.”
Allen, 87, was the first African-American chemist hired by Brown-Forman. She retired from the company after 34 years and became a major force in the local arts community. Allen was one of the founding members of the Arts Council of Louisville. She was also part of a group that went around the state lobbying to have the Kentucky Center for the Arts built in Louisville rather than Lexington.
A resume like that would seem impressive by any standard, but Allen told Insider she doesn’t understand why anyone would be interested in her life.
“I don’t really like to talk about me,” she said. “I haven’t done anything extraordinary. I just do the things I enjoy doing. So, I guess, that’s what I’m being celebrated for.”
Allen was born in 1931 to Elmer Johnson Hammonds, a Pullman porter, and Ophelia Guinn Hammonds, who worked as a domestic. Her father wanted a son, but he settled for giving his name to his first born child. This caused a problem after a brother, who her parents named Elmer Johnson Hammonds after his father, came into the world.
“There were three Elmers in my household. They called me ‘Cile,’ and they called my brother Bud. He still goes by that name,” Allen explained.
The Hammonds lived at 1724 W. Chestnut St. in the Russell neighborhood, although Allen said nobody used that name when she was a child. They just called it the West End. She said the family never owned a car because they could walk or take the streetcar anywhere they needed to go.
Allen admits to not having a particular interest in art as a child. She remembers taking an art class in junior high school, but she wouldn’t step into another one until she was an adult. Nevertheless, at age 9, Allen’s picture appeared in the Courier Journal after she won a poster contest sponsored by the Girl Scouts of America.
Allen said she stuttered for most of her young life. That became a problem when she was graduating from Central High School in 1949. As the salutatorian in her class, Allen was required to give a speech. She was terrified, she said, until a teacher suggested she start watching herself talk in the mirror.
“Unless I get mad, I don’t stutter when I talk at all. I tell everybody today, ‘If you just look in the mirror and talk, you can actually control how you talk,’ ” Allen said.
At the time Allen graduated, a Kentucky statute called the Day Law prohibited black and white students from attending the same institution. As a result, the University of Louisville operated a separate school for African-Americans known as Louisville Municipal College. It was on the campus now used by Simmons College.
The Day Law was overturned by the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, but UofL had already closed the Louisville Municipal College in 1951.
Allen attended the Louisville Municipal College the last two years it was open before transferring to all-girls Nazareth College, which is now Spalding University. She graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1953.
Although she had a chemistry degree, Allen said jobs in the field were scarce for women, especially African-American women. She found herself working as a clerk-typist at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana. Then she had several jobs as a medical technician in Indianapolis hospitals before returning to Louisville in 1958 to take a similar position.
Allen was working as a research chemist at UofL when someone told her about a junior chemist position at Brown-Forman. She was hired in April 1966 and retired as a senior analytical chemist in 1997.
In February 2018, Allen was the first winner of Brown-Forman’s Strategic Progressive Leaders and Achievers with a Shared Heritage (SPLASH) Advocacy Award. The award now bears her name.
Allen started taking art classes as a hobby in the late 1970s, but retirement gave her time to get serious about it. She earned a master’s in creative arts with an emphasis on fiber and ceramic art from UofL in 2002.
On Feb. 22 at 5:30 p.m., the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany will host a reception for “The Art of Elmer Lucille Allen, Sandra Charles and Barbara Tyson Mosley,” an exhibition by the three artists. Allen will display some of her richly-colored cotton and silk shibori wall hangings.
“People always ask me about moving from chemistry to art like they are such different things,” she said. “For me, they are connected. Everything you use in art is a chemical, even water is just oxygen and hydrogen. That’s how I look at the world.”
Although she doesn’t like to be the center of attention, Allen said she is looking forward to the Pillars of Louisville on Saturday because State Representative Charles Booker, D-43, has agreed to be the moderator.
“She got really excited when I suggested having Charles,” Woods said. “Apparently she’s a big fan of his, which is funny because we’re all fans of hers.”