In a recent grad school class, I was asked to read Passing for Black: The Life and Careers of Mae Street Kidd by Wade Hall (1997-11-25) by Wade Hall. I was shocked that I’d never heard of her before, but I’m so glad I’m on it now.
The book is in her words, verbatim. It’s more of an oral history than a traditional history book, which has its advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, you can get a better picture of who she was and how she thought. The downside is that its not as easily readable. Either way, I believe this is a must-read for anyone interested in Louisville history, as well as African-American history.
Kidd was born in 1204 and raised in Millersburg, Ky., a small town outside of Lexington, to a black mother and a white father. Although she and her father lived just a few miles apart, they never met, and she never felt the need to meet him.
While she could easily pass for white, she never tried. In fact, the title of Hall’s book, “Passing for Black,” comes from her strong conviction that she is black and that she need not pretend otherwise.
While a Kentucky legislator, Kidd worked hard to get the Open Housing Law passed, which it did in 1968. She described it as an emotional moment: “I worked day and night to get the bill approved. When the bill passed, we cried tears of joy. It was a milestone in Kentucky history. … It meant that whether you lived in Pikeville or Paducah, you could live where you wanted to – if you could afford to.” Kidd went on to add that, “that was the catch.” African-Americans were mostly poor at the time and couldn’t afford to move to expensive white neighborhoods, but the law at least allowed them to if they could. She also noted that the bill was passed while there were only three black members in the legislature: Georgia Davis, Hughes McGill and Kidd, making the accomplishment even more sweet.
Kidd went on to pass other laws to benefit the underserved of all races. She passed a law that provided for a state program for the prevention, diagnosis, treatment and screening of lead poisoning, as well as a bill in 1970 that would create a Kentucky housing corporation to provide mortgages to low-income people. She said that one of her proudest moments was when Governor Wendell Ford called her “a worker for the people,” and he didn’t specify black or white people.
Kidd was more than just a legislator, though. She worked hard to establish herself in business, whether she was working for an insurance company or selling cosmetics. She always quickly rose to the top of her field. She did well in her career in public relations, served in the Red Cross and then the Kentucky House from 1968 to 1984.
She also spearheaded the campaign to have Kentucky ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, the 14th Amendment, which defines citizenship, and the 15th Amendment, which gives all men the right to vote without regard to race.
Known collectively as the “Reconstruction Amendments,” all three of those constitutional amendments had become law shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War when a sufficient number of lawmakers in other states had ratified them. Representative Kidd offered and secured a resolution in 1976 of a resolution to ratify the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.
Kidd was active in a number of charitable organizations throughout her life, including the Lincoln Foundation, which helped disadvantaged children at the facility that had once schooled her.
Toward the end of her life, she lost her sight. She died in Louisville on Oct. 20, 1999.
Unfortunately, we lost Wade Hall last year. He was an author and retired English professor at Bellarmine University.
When I read Kidd’s biography, I was amazed at her accomplishments and at how unknown she is to most of Louisville. When they named the new Lincoln bridge last year, I was hoping they’d name it after her, although I didn’t really fight for it. I knew it was a lost cause because 1) most people don’t know her; 2) she’s a woman and they haven’t named any bridges around here after women; and 3) she’s black (see no. 2).
But she’s done so much for Louisville, for Kentucky and civil rights that she deserves to be recognized and not forgotten.
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