Davis Bottom is a residential neighborhood located about a half-mile southwest of downtown Lexington, Kentucky. Established in 1865, the community is named after William “Willard” Davis, an attorney, civil rights advocate, and land speculator who purchased 43 narrow lots in the swampy valley that would eventually bear his name. Davis Bottom (also known as Davistown) was one of about a dozen ethnic enclaves established in Lexington after the Civil War for thousands of emancipated African Americans who migrated to the city in search of work, security and educational opportunities. Most of these ethnic enclaves were located close to downtown in less desirable areas near factories, stockyards, railroad tracks and flood-prone valleys known as “bottom land.”

The first residents of Davis Bottom were primarily African American families. Some were Union Army veterans who had enough money to buy or lease property. But Davis Bottom, from the start, was also home for a number of European immigrants and white families from rural counties in Kentucky. During the late 1800s, most residents worked as domestic servants, waiters and cooks, or as laborers for construction companies, railroads and horserace tracks. The Cincinnati Southern Railway, whose tracks bordered three sides of Davis Bottom by the 1880s, employed many local residents on train crews, and in two nearby facilities – a passenger station and a freight depot. In the early 1900s, some residents also began working for dozens of tobacco companies located in and around Davis Bottom. Despite economic challenges, this working-class community has remained a diverse, strong and tight-knit neighborhood for almost 150 years.

Today, the neighborhood is facing its greatest challenge with construction of the Newtown Pike Extension, a roadway and urban redevelopment project that is transforming Davis Bottom. In advance of construction, scholars have conducted extensive research on the archaeology, architecture, history and oral history of the community. This academic research, combined with the “living memories” of residents, is preserving rare information about some of the people who helped make Lexington the commercial heart of the Bluegrass Region.

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Davis Bottom is named after William Willard Davis who purchased and subdivided 43 lots in 1865. Davis was an attorney and a Republican politician who spoke out for civil rights during the period of Reconstruction. Most of the early residents were African American families, but from the start Davis Bottom has also been home for European immigrants and white families from rural areas of Kentucky. Archival records, census data, newspaper accounts and rare biographical information is helping scholars better understand the daily lives of residents in Davis Bottom, including the Hathaway family.

The second generation of residents in Davis Bottom experienced significant social changes during a period that began with economic prosperity and ended with the Great Depression. The population of Davis Bottom peaked at about 1,050 residents between 1910 and 1920, which coincides with the growth of nearby railroad facilities and tobacco companies. Several key institutions were also established during this period, including Abraham Lincoln School, Carver Elementary School and Nathaniel United Methodist Mission.

Davis Bottom suffered from a steady decline in housing from the 1950s to the present day. Many homes were lost to commercial development, and the prospect of the Newtown Extension Project, which helped to discourage street and residential improvements. However, many residents have fond memories about growing up in Davis Bottom, a “tight-knit” community where neighbors “looked after one another” regardless of race.