Honoring Louisville Water’s Black History Dating Back to the 19th Century

By: Kathleen Speicher, Louisville Water Communications Specialist

Louisville Water building in 1860Louisville Water will celebrate 164 years in October. The company’s archives are filled with stories and vivid descriptions about the water works. The long legacy also includes a story about the first Black family on Louisville Water’s payroll.

The earliest documented African-Americans on the water utility’s payroll were James H. Thomas, James W. Thomas, and Thomas L. Thomas. Existing records from Louisville Water’s early days (dating back as far as 1854) don’t reveal much about individual employees. As time has passed, much of that documented information has been lost.

From what we can tell, the Thomases were related, possibly father and sons. This would not be surprising as familial generations of workers are common throughout Louisville Water’s history.

Headstone of James H. Thomas

James H. Thomas appears to be the first and longest serving of the Thomas family. He began his career at Louisville Water in 1872 as a porter (and janitor), moved into a messenger role, and then transitioned in 1876 into the position of “on-off” man. This means exactly what it sounds like, Thomas was responsible for turning the water service on and off. Eventually, he became the first on-off man in 1900. He later switched positions to become the Second Floor Porter until he departed for unknown reasons in 1905.

Documents show that James W. Thomas worked for Louisville Water in the late 1870s as a teamster and porter. In 1881, the board voted to give $30 to pay for funeral expenses to bury James W. Thomas for his “long and faithful services” because of the “poverty of the family.” Today, some members of the Thomas family are buried at Eastern Cemetery on Baxter Avenue.

Later in 1882, Thomas L. Thomas worked as a porter. He ended up staying in this role for the next 17 years.

Fast forward to 2021 and Louisville Water created a college scholarship fund in honor of the Thomas family. This award is administered by the YMCA’s Black Achievers Program and funded through a grant from Louisville Water’s Board of Water Works. The $10,000 annual scholarship is awarded to a graduating Black senior who will continue higher education studies in Kentucky.

Current Louisville Water building