Fact check: Kentucky's Jefferson County has about half of state's Black population

Ella Lee, USA TODAY

The claim: Half of Kentucky's Black population lives in one county, and the county had just one primary polling place

As primaries for the 2020 election cycle take place amid a global pandemic, some fear that some voters may be more susceptible to disenfranchisement. Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, pointed to Kentucky in a June 23 tweet.

“Half of Kentucky’s Black population lives in one county,” the tweet read. “Kentucky slashed their polling locations – there is now only one. For 616,000 people. Voter suppression is racist.”

The organization later shared the tweet on its Instagram account, where Instagram users commented in disbelief.

"Is this real life?" user @jeanluc6 asked.

"Stop supporting Kentucky," user @39mohawkln wrote. "The money stop Kentucky stop."

Public Citizen did not respond to USA TODAY’s requests for comment and clarification.

It's possible more than half of all Black Kentuckians live in one county

Jefferson County, where Louisville is located, has the largest Black population in the state. Of its 766,757 residents, 22.4% are Black or African American alone, according to information compiled by Data USA. That means there are 171,753 Black people in Jefferson County.

There are 4,467,673 people living in all of Kentucky, 8.5% of whom are Black, according to the Census Bureau. That means there are 379,752 Black people living in Kentucky as of 2019.

By dividing the number of Black people in Jefferson County by the number of Black people in the whole state, it’s found that about 45% of the state’s Black population lives in just one county.

The Kentucky Commission on Human Rights, however, estimates it could be higher. The commission's executive director, Terrance Sullivan, told USA TODAY that using the Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the Black population is likely close to half when the margin of error is considered.

"I would venture to guess that we have passed 50% with relocation," he said in an email.

Fayette County has the second-highest concentration, with about 13%, or 50,411, of the state’s Black residents, according to the Census Bureau.

Primary Election Day voting at the Fair and Exposition Center in Louisville, Kentucky. June 23, 2020
Primary Election Day voting at the Fair and Exposition Center in Louisville, Kentucky. June 23, 2020

Why do so many Black people live in Jefferson County?

Gerald Smith, a professor at the University of Kentucky whose research focuses on the history of Kentucky's African Americans, said that to fully understand Jefferson County's dense Black population, you have to go back to the time before the Civil War.

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Louisville was a trade center, with steamboats and some parts of the Nashville railroad. This made it an attraction to free Black people, he said. They stayed in the city and founded numerous "hamlets," or Black neighborhoods.

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When World War II came, Louisville began to produce chemicals, plastics and rubbers.

"You didn't have to go all the way to Detroit or Pittsburgh or New York to make a satisfactory wage, and yet still maintained your connections and roots to the Deep South," Smith said. "So that's one of the reasons that you're seeing, if you look at the migration, this sustainability of the African American community there over, really, the past couple centuries."

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In the years since, much of the population has remained. Smith said that in addition to job stability, it has much to do with Louisville's history of Black activism. For example, the NAACP's first major civil rights victory – Buchanan vs. Warley – took place there.

"Louisville was a place where Black people learned very early on how to use the ballot as an instrument for progress, to the point that they were never really committed to either party, Democrat or Republican," he said.

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Smith added that he believes Jefferson County's high population of Black people won't change any time soon.

"Kentucky has struggled with the level and extent of progressivism necessary to include all people, and you know, quite frankly, because the population of Louisville — the African American population of Louisville — has been so dense, it gives the impression and has the reputation of being more welcoming, particularly for African Americans," he said.

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Jefferson County had one polling place for its primary

It is true that Jefferson County had just one in-person polling place this year, as opposed to its usual 270 primary election sites in the county, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

The Kentucky Exposition Center, in Louisville, was made available for Kentuckians who did not want to mail in their ballots for the state’s June 23 primary. The changes were made in tandem with a statewide expansion of absentee voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Courier-Journal reported.

There are 616,465 registered voters in Jefferson County, according to the Jefferson County Clerk’s website. It is unclear how many of that number are Black Kentuckians.

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Our rating: True

We rate the claim that half of Kentucky’s Black population lives in one county and that county had just one primary polling place as TRUE because it is supported by our research.

After crunching available data, USA TODAY found that about 45% of the state’s Black population lives in Jefferson County. Still, the state's commission on human rights suggested it could be closer to — or higher than — half by now.

It's also true that Jefferson County only had one polling place for its June 23 primary. The change was made because of the COVID-19 pandemic and in tandem with a boost of absentee voting.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Jefferson County has half of Kentucky's Black population