Shirley Mae's Café & Bar: The Gem of Smoketown & A Local Louisville Legend

Updated: Feb 18

Shirley Mae's Café & Bar is a loved and treasured establishment in the heart of Smoketown in Louisville, Kentucky. It's located in a 3-story clay-brick building on the corner of Clay and Lampton Street; you can't miss the nostalgic old-school signs out front. Not only does it offer cheap and authentic Soul food, there is important history behind the story of this place that influenced the culture of the neighborhood and the city of Louisville.

The Story

The historic neighborhood of Smoketown has long been one of Louisville's most culturally rich neighborhoods. It was one of the first African-American communities to emerge following the Civil War in 1865 (155 years ago!), growing to be a thriving hub for Black Business built on the backs of generations of working families.

In the heart of Smoketown there is a 3-story clay-brick building dating all the way back to the 1800s. Over the years, this building has played a monumental role by serving the community food, drink, groceries, and dry goods.

The J & H Food Bar became one of the premier bars for minorities in Louisville… attracting celebrities and sports figures like Redd Foxx, Della Reese, Quincy Jones, Cassius Clay and Joe Louis.

In 1988, a woman by the name of Shirley Beard purchased the building, becoming the first black owner and changing the name to the famous "Shirley Mae's Café". The restaurant opened its doors to the public on New Year's Eve, 1988. 32 years later, the restaurant is a jewel highly treasured by the community. It's safe to say that if you don't know Shirley Mae's, you don't know Smoketown.

The very next year of 1989, Shirley founded the "Salute to the Black Jockeys Who Pioneered the Kentucky Derby" annual event, which aimed to educate the Black community about their rich roots in the Kentucky Derby, as well has have an event to celebrate those roots.

Shirley Mae sought to cut through the apathy that lassoed the community and inspire the youth in the nearby housing projects to aspire to finish their education and to avoid early teenage pregnancy/parenthood and criminal pursuits.

Chef Theresa, Shirley's oldest daughter

Shirley's oldest daughter, Chef Theresa, went on to become the coordinator of the week-long carnival-like event. An affair such as this was unprecedented at the time - Ferris Wheels, Tilt-A-Whirls, petting zoos, pony rides, music, fun, and games could all be found nestled in an inner-city housing project. To keep the event accessible to the community, the budget was funded by Shirley Mae and family members, as well as sponsorships from celebrities and businesses to cover costs and pay for tickets which were handed out the residents. All the logistics and accommodations were also handled in-house by family members.

The first of many celebrities to attend this event over the years was Whoopie Goldberg, who came to the inaugural event in 1989, with other big names such as B.B. King, Morgan Freeman, Tramaine Hawkins, and many more coming out in the following years. The event has been also supported by other stars such as Oprah Winfrey and Al Green who weren't able to attend in person,.

Unlike the celebrities who attended the Kentucky Derby Festival gala-like events, the celebrities who attended the Salute to Black Jockeys event came to reach and encourage the young people and other residents of the inner city housing projects… to inspire them to rise above their circumstances and succeed. And while many attempts were made by the Kentucky Derby Festival and representatives of the local government to move the Salute to Black Jockeys event to a more mainstream location, Shirley Mae resisted those attempts and stayed true to the children of the inner city.