Between 1868 and 1877, John Prall, a Lexington lawyer and judge, subdivided land he owned on Nicholasville Road and sold lots or homes to people who had been enslaved until the Civil War's end. When first established, Pralltown was on the outskirts of town; the University of Kentucky (UK), founded in 1865 but originally located elsewhere, moved across the street from Pralltown in the late 1870s.

1855 Map of Lexington

Pralltown has been marked in (dark shape in circle at the bottom) to show its relation to the city. Pralltown didn't actually exist until about 12 years after this map was made. From the cover of UK College of Architecture's 1975 Pralltown Development Study.

1952 Map of Pralltown,

From Lexington Slum Clearance and Redevelopment Agency 1952.

Pralltown borders shown as darker lines; added yellow highlighting shows railroad tracks.

Pralltown's three primary streets were laid out perpendicular to Nicholasville Road. The buildings facing Nicholasville Road were businesses or larger houses, and the Pralltown homes were probably not visible from the main road. The homes were small and of frame construction, mostly built in shotgun style, but some were "L" shaped.

The Pralltown site was "prone to flooding" according to several researchers. The neighborhood's main streets run east-west down a small hill, and it may have been the eastern portionat the bottom of the hillthat experienced flooding. One factor that would have made the western part of Pralltown undesirable for residences was its very close proximity to the railroad tracks.

The first residents were laborers and farm hands.

Employment opportunities for early residents of the settlement were close at hand. Adjacent large estates, the newly established railroad, the developing tobacco industry, and then the University of Kentucky provided a coherent employment base for the Pralltown Labor Force. (UK College of Architecture 1975, 2)

"By 1880, the community was home to 290 black and 46 white residents, meaning its population was slightly more than 86 percent black" (Appler and Riesenweber 2020, 168).

As in the other early African American settlements, Pralltown residents raised families, participated in social and charitable organizations, and established at least one church. Like Davis Bottom, it was a close-knit community where some families lived for several generations.

Urban Renewal in Pralltown

Pralltown was created for and by freed slaves following the Civil War, and for virtually its entire existence, it has endured public policy efforts to change the neighborhood in order to address its real or perceived failings. (Appler and Riesenweber 2020, 164)

By the early 20th century, reformers and Lexington city officials considered Pralltown to be a "slum," and it was one of several neighborhoods singled out in the Lexington Board of Health's 1924 Housing Survey. The author acknowledged that the houses had been built "according to the standards of the day," and that most of them had "open spaces, light and air in every room" but then asserted, "Long usage has worn them out, and while they have sewer and water, they are still far from sanitary. Many houses are so badly out of repair that they should be vacated, unless practically rebuilt" (Lexington Board of Health 1924, 37).

Pralltown also received special mention in Lexington's 1931 Comprehensive Plan:

"[I]n such neighbor­hoods as. . . Pralltown . . . three room frame houses and flimsy shacks are crowded together, many of them dilapidated, damp, unsanitary, which do not qualify even as shelters against incle­ment weather . . . [T]hese unhealthy, unsanitary settlements are a menace to health and safety in the city, and a constant drain on the eco­nomic resources of the citizens . . ." (Lexington City Planning and Zoning Commission 1931, 23).

In 1934, shortly after federal money became available for slum clearance and low-income housing projects, Lexington established the Lexington Municipal Housing Commission in order to apply for federal funds. The commission identified six neighborhoods, including Pralltown, as potential sites for clearance and replacement with low-income public housing. A legal problem arose, however, when a Louisville judge ruled that those specific federal funds could not be used to obtain property by condemnation. The Housing Commission then used the funds to purchase an unused race track, and built what became the Bluegrass-Aspendale housing project. Pralltown was left as it was for another 15 years (Appler and Riesenweber 2020, 171).

First Pralltown Urban Renewal effort, 19511954

Lexington's Slum Clearance and Redevelopment Agency, formed in 1951, selected four sites, including Pralltown, for its first efforts under the Federal Urban Renewal program.

Once plans for the Pralltown project were presented, it was clear that the project focused on the neighborhood's potential as a site for industry and for expansion of the University of Kentucky and the College of the Bible, and not on improving the lives and homes of current Pralltown residents.

The industrial aspect of the plan is not surprising. Just the previous year, when the Planning Commission and the Chamber of Commerce Industrial Committee had met to discuss Lexington's need for industrial land, the mayor said that "the Slum Clearance Program would clear sites in the city which could be designed for industry, said sites already being served with utilities" (Lexington-Fayette County Planning Commission, Minutes of the Lexington Fayette County Planning Commission, December 7, 1950).

The project plan, shown to the left, divided Pralltown into institutional use (Stages A and B) and commercial and industrial use (Stage C). Prall, Montmullen, Colfax, and part of Winnie Streets were "to be vacated." A new road between the railroad tracks and the institutional areas, would "serve industrial sites."

Map: Lexington Slum Clearance and Redevelopment Agency 1952.

The plan said that most Pralltown residents would be relocated. Not surprisingly, the residents objected to the plan, but the Planning and Zoning Commission approved it in early September 1953, after the director of the Slum Clearance and Redevelopment Agency made assurances, without specific details, that housing would be available for the relocated residents (Appler and Riesenweber 2020, 173-174).

In another meeting the agency director again promised that the project would not go forward unless residents could be relocated to "decent, safe, and sanitary dwellings" within their financial means (Lexington Leader, September 12, 1953).

At a public hearing attended by about 400 people, it was clear that the agency did not have a concrete plan for relocating the residents, and that most of the residents did not want to be relocated. According to the Lexington Leader article, "Slum Clearance Group to Decide" (Sept. 15, 1953), the residents were "bitter in their resentment" about the project. The story included these comments by residents and their allies:

James R. Page, expressing doubt that displaced residents would be able to afford new homes: "The income of the average Negro is quite low. Financiers are reluctant. There is a certain organization in Lexington that keeps our income so low that we are unable to have adequate housing."

Denise Stanley of Prall Street asked why no one from Pralltown had been on the advisory committee.

Percy Lucas of Winnie Street questioned why it was Pralltown that was chosen as the colleges' expansion site when other sites were available. "When you are in trouble, it's our country. But when you are not in trouble, it's your country."

James Smith "lashed out at segregation," saying, "We are first-class citizens and should purchase on the open market wherever we want to buy. We should have some equal chance to purchase property, borrow money, and earn money." (Hopkins September 15,1953)

Finally a modified plan was proposed. Much of Pralltown would still be razed to provide expansion land for the university and the College of the Bible, but instead of the industrial area there would be new housing for about 68 families. But the relocation housing plans were still nebulous and would not provide for all of the families who would be displaced (Lexington Leader, Dec. 12, 1953).

In January 1954, a Pralltown representative brought the Planning and Zoning Commission a petition signed by the residents asking that Pralltown remain zoned residential; the petition signers pledged to "rehabilitate or rebuild their properties into safe, clean and sanitary conditions" (Lexington-Fayette County Planning Commission, Minutes of the Lexington Fayette County Planning Commission, January 7, 1954).

After that, the first Pralltown Urban Renewal plan appears to have died a quiet death. "Intense public opposition, and the lack of a serious commitment to develop relocation housing, ended the project before any clearance could take place" (Appler and Riesenweber 2020,175).

Physical Conditions in Pralltown Remain Much the Same, 19541967

In 1967, Pralltown was included in Neighborhood Analysis for Thirteen Low-Standard Planning Units, a Lexington-Fayette City-County Planning Commission report. The report found much evidence of "blight," especially along Prall Street and Winnie Streets. In addition to substandard houses, narrow streets and inadequate storm sewers, the report named past or present zoning as a cause of poor living conditions: "incompatible land use mixtures plus the close proximity of the railroad," warehouses established "without adequate buffering between residential uses," properties and residents "subjected to noises and increased traffic as well as a reduction in needed light and air space." The report attributed the residents' poverty (and consequent inability to move away) to "low educational skills" and added that "low income and educational levels have led to such blighting influences as overcrowded buildings, unemployment, and above average crime and delinquency rates" (Lexington Fayette City-County Planning Commission 1967, 28).

Even as late as 1967, the report did not mention housing and school segregation, or job discrimination, as factors in residents' underemployment, low incomes, or lack of access to other Lexington neighborhoods.

Second Pralltown Urban Renewal effort, 19681974

Although Pralltown residents had opposed the first urban renewal effort, they did want to improve their living conditions and their neighborhood. In 1968 the Pralltown Neighborhood Association asked the UK College of Architecture to help them prepare a preliminary plan for the neighborhood's redevelopment. That effort led to a new urban renewal plan for Pralltown.

That plan, later summarized in the College of Architecture's 1975 Pralltown study, described conditions in Pralltown as the second Urban Renewal effort began (around 1968) as follows:

  • 158 families, about 300 persons living on 22 acres of land.

  • 99 percent of the houses dilapidated, mostly due to age.

  • Inadequate streets and sanitary sewers.

  • No sidewalks, no storm drainage.

  • 74 percent of the land owned by non-residents.

  • 30 percent of the land used for University of Kentucky parking lots.

(University of Kentucky College of Architecture 1975, 3)

Having been designed in consultation with Pralltown residents, the new plan emphasized neighborhood housing over other uses.

Map: Pralltown Neighborhood Development Plan.

Instead of clearing land for expansion of UK and College of the Bible, the plan called for a mix of low- and medium-density housing, a community center, and an expanded commercial area along Limestone Street to provide for neighborhood (and university) needs. In addition the plan called for sidewalks, streetlights, sewer, and other public improvements.

The plan apparently went through various stages. US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) denied funding at first, and the city revised and resubmitted it as part of a program covering four neighborhoods. That plan was approved, but by then, under the Nixon administration, HUD's own budget was experiencing deep cuts. As federal funding decreased, Pralltown residents, who had been closely engaged in the project at the beginning, became discouraged. Relocation payments to displaced families appeared to be in jeopardy, and it looked as if the rents for the new townhouses would be too high for the current residents.

The federal Urban Renewal program was terminated in 1974. By then, HUD had only disbursed $464,144 of the originally approved $2 million. "While the Urban Renewal Agency did acquire a small number of parcels in Pralltown, it was unable to realize anything close to the vision that had been expressed by neighborhood residents at the start of the second effort in 1968" (Appler and Riesenweber 2020, 178179),

Pralltown Residents' Continued Efforts to Save Their Community

In 1975, there were only 103 families and 195 people living in Pralltown, down from the 158 families and 300 people who lived there at the start of the second Urban Renewal effort in 1968. Pralltown residents again asked the UK College of Architecture to help them improve the physical condition of their community. The resulting study emphasized housing but acknowledged that without large-scale federal funding, the costs of new construction would make home ownership out of the reach of most Pralltown residents.

The study authors recommended rehabilitation of homes that were in sufficiently good shape, and construction of low rise attached and semi-attached housing that would have the look of individual housing units. They suggested funding through various federal low-interest loan, rent subsidy, and rehabilitation loan programs (University of Kentucky College of Architecture 1975, 3).

We do not know how much of this program was implemented. We do know that Pralltown residents did not give up on their community. At some point in the 1970s, long-term residents formed the Pralltown Development Corporation with the goal of rebuilding the neighborhood with single-family homes (Becker July 2, 1998).

A 1983 Herald-Leader article characterized Pralltown as "a web of narrow streets with shotgun houses, a few neat brick homes, apartment houses and vacant lots," and quoted the neighborhood association president as saying it was "a great place to live." The article named Pralltown as one of four neighborhoods that were part of a new "small area plan" that was part of the city's comprehensive planning process. The plan attempted to "define boundaries for commercial use" and recommended "preservation of existing housing and historic structures." Betty Boyd, president of Pralltown Neighborhood Association, said she hoped the plan would result in more residences being built on the several vacant lots. Bob Joice of the planning staff said federal Community Development Block Grants could be used to help renovate and build houses in Pralltown. (Reynolds 1983)

Despite the residents' efforts and the city's plans, Pralltown began to lose its character as a single-family neighborhood. Over the years several lots remained vacant and many of the older houses were "split into apartments or replaced with complexes ...filled with students and other temporary residents" (Becker July 2, 1998).

In July 1998, the
Lexington Herald-Leader reported that Pralltown residents, "with help from the city and the non-profit Community Ventures, are preparing to build four single-family homes in the neighborhood" (Becker July 2, 1998).

They had bought the land for the houses from a developer who had planned to build apartment complexes. Over several months of meetings the residents convinced the developer to sell the land for single-family houses. The neighbors could not afford to buy it, but Community Ventures stepped in to help. The Pralltown Development Corporation also received a $10,000 matching grant from the city of Lexington for the project.

When the homes were finished, Community Ventures planned to sell them at less than market value under a lease-purchase program

Bill Bingham, President of the Pralltown Development Corporation, said that building more single-family homes would allow former residents to come back home: "We would like to reseed the neighborhood with people who have a vested interest" (Becker July 2, 1998).

By the summer of 1999, the first of the houses was nearly ready for its new buyer, a woman who had grown up in Cadentown who said she was "looking forward to living in a place that still clings to having a family atmosphere" (M. Smith June 21, 1999).

By September of that year the first four houses were complete, and Community Ventures Corporation announced the project's second phase, which would include rehabilitation of some older houses and construction of 11 new single-family homes (M. Smith September 15,1999).

It looked as if Pralltown residents might be able to preserve their single-family neighborhood.

And yet...

In a 2017 Herald-Leader article about the possible negative effects of neighborhood redevelopment on long-term residents, Lexington Urban League president P. G. Peeples named Pralltown as a neighborhood that had not been saved:

"I am not against development and progress," Peeples said. "I am very concerned. Especially for the elderly African-American property owners in [areas undergoing "revival"] whose property taxes could escalate to a point where they can no longer afford to stay in a place where they have been for generations."

That fear is grounded in history, Peeples said. A predominately black neighborhood called Pralltown off Scott Street near the University of Kentucky was largely driven out by rapid redevelopment. Much of that area is now rental housing for UK students. (Musgrave 2017)

For those long-term residents who have been able to remain, and for some former residents, Pralltown continues to be beloved. In "Pralltown," a short video produced in 2019 for Kentucky Educational Television's "Kentucky Life" program, Pralltown resident Betty Boyd says, "I could have lived anywhere I wanted to, and I chose to stay and live in Pralltown, and of course I still live there. So that should tell you right there that there's something unique about it." Later she adds, "It wasn't where we lived, it was how we lived—and we lived for one another" (Kentucky Life 2019).