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Elmer Lucille Allen: The Perfect Blend Of Science and Art

Updated: Jun 21

By Dr. Randy Whetstone, Jr. • Photograhy by Kathryn Harrington and Elmer Lucille Allen

Historically, there has been an ongoing debate of art versus science. What or who determines if something is an art? Or a science? Data and objectivity drive the science argument, while openness, creativity, and subjectivity guide the art position. If we were to take both science and art and personify the two, you would get Elmer Lucille Allen. Full of grace and laughter, Elmer Lucille is one of the most precious gems in the city of Louisville. Her life’s radiance shines bright in so many parts of the city… even some of the darkest parts decades ago. 

“As a child, I lived on 18th and Chestnut, and the only people who were not African American were Jews. There was a Jewish drug store and Jewish grocery store,” she says. “I babysat for the Jewish (community), but I couldn’t go to the bathroom in Shawnee, and I don’t want to go back. I don’t care a thing about Shawnee Park today, because I could not use the bathroom where I was babysitting.”

This was a defining moment in Elmer Lucille’s life. One that would define a clear purpose and passion moving forward. Born in 1931, she recalls a time around the age of five or six with her grandmother when there was a flood in 1937. She and her grandmother “came out of the house on a boat” and went over to a church on the other side of Broadway. This vivid memory became a valuable life lesson in this young girl’s life. 

“Tomorrow is not promised,” she says. “You go to bed, but you don’t know how you’re going to get up’. During those days, my grandmother didn’t have hot and cold running water. We had outhouses, but in my own mother’s house we had hot bathtubs and stuff like that… So, things have changed.”

This experience didn’t stunt Elmer Lucille’s academic prowess. She says she stuttered a lot as a young girl, but as she grew up, she mastered science. 

“I came out of Central High School in 1949 and I could not go to the University of Louisville (UofL). I went to Louisville Municipal College, which was a college for African Americans. The first two years, it was all survey courses. When they closed in 1951, I went to Nazareth, which is now Spalding University. I took science and math. 12 hours of philosophy and 12 hours of religion. So, when I got ready to graduate, most of the courses I had were chemistry and math, so that is how I got my degree.”

Her mastery of chemistry led to becoming the first African American woman chemist at Brown-Forman in 1966. During a time when racism and segregation were perpetuated, Allen established a new disposition that regardless of one’s skin color, everyone was viewed as equal. 

“I came to work every day and I (understood), I am just like you are, so we are going to get along. So, I didn’t have any problems at all. In that first year, the other chemist’s husband died, and I went to the wake. She was surprised. I said, ‘But we work together.’ I knew (the importance) to interact. There were three women there, but I was the only African American woman.”

Friendship and interaction are values to Elmer Lucille. She has a personality that is positively contagious, seeking to build a connection with anyone she meets. She says, “I am a person who likes to be with people. I think that is very important. In the environment we live in now, I don’t think I could survive.” 

With the option of remote work, perhaps people working from home could disrupt the social harmony Allen found to be so important in her work-life balance. Social harmony and interaction will be pivotal skills for Generation Z and A to embrace to be successful, she believes. 

Elmer Lucille is currently 92 years old and says the value of learning a trade is still imperative for younger generations. 

“They are not interacting. When we came along in school, there was only one Black High School, Central High School and two Black junior high schools. The (junior high schools) taught trades. They taught printmaking, pottery, ceramics, cooking, sewing, all of the trades. Then you went to Central, and you had plumbing and electricity. But nowadays, children are not exposed to that, like how to hem a dress… they don’t know how to thread a needle.” 

Social issues and safety concerns are all areas needing much attention for our youth, she says. 

“When you sit down and think about where we are today, there is still segregation. Children going to school riding (the school bus). During my time (growing up) you caught the streetcar to school. Now you are taking kids to school on a bus. But they are also getting in trouble on the bus. So, it is not safe riding the school bus.” 

It’s profound wisdom and insight from a pioneer. As the first African American chemist at Brown-Forman, being the “first” has never been something Allen has let take over her ego. Being the first to do something is important but “don’t let it rule you; you go on as though you are not the first to do something.” 

It is this type of humility that has led to a full life, not just in science but in the field of art as well. Allen has received endless recognition, awards, and achievements for her career shift to ceramics. After working a little over three decades at Brown-Forman, she shifted her skillset to the field of art. People working together and mutual respect amongst others are what drove her love for art. 

“I started taking art in the late 1970s. I started taking ceramic, because I had arthritis in my hand, and they recommended me to take art classes. So, I took a class at night at school, and then I kept taking classes. Then I started taking classes at Metro Art Center, out Dixie Highway and I started taking ceramics there. There were two teachers in the master’s program at UofL and they recommended that I go to UofL. So, I went to my first class in 1980 and ‘81, and I am still taking classes (laughs).”

“The things that I have done and the rewards that I have gotten, I donate the awards to the Filson Club (Filson Historical Society). I give things that are in magazines about African Americans. I give them the Louisville Defender and stuff like that. You can go there, free of charge and sit in the library there and do research.”

Elmer Lucille is a beautiful soul who is modest in her approach. Titles and professional appointments don’t move her as much as being authentic and ensuring people are lifelong learners. This is evident in the leadership roles she has held. 

“I am just me. I was president of the first African American Library, (Louisville) Western Branch Library, in the United States. There are so many things that we do not realize (that others) have done. I have forgotten things that I have done.

“Back in the 1980’s, I opened an organization called the Kentucky Coalition for African American Arts. I had two conferences, and I published a directory of African American artists when I was there. You have to realize that isn’t being done now. You can’t find who African American artists are, because they are not really printing anywhere.”

Aside from science, art, leadership, history, and business, Elmer Lucille enjoys the simple things in life. She loves her personal studio at the Mellwood Art Center and cherishes a space that allows her to see the beauty and potential of everyone who walks by. 

In her recreation time, she enjoys spending time with her children. 

“I like going to the movies. I love it. In fact, my daughter and I went to see the Planet of the Apes. I love going out to eat. I eat chicken all the time (laughs). Fried chicken and baked chicken.”

You will see Elmer Lucille on a Smoketown mural, an imperishable imprint that goes beyond science and art. When asked how she describes herself in one word, she replies, “What you see is what you get.”

A life committed to service and the betterment of others. When thinking about a legacy, Elmer Lucille keeps it simple. 

“I live in the west end, and I own a property and the people that live there pay one dollar a month. So, what does that tell you?” 



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