In the spring of 1917, The City of Louisville was successful in winning the bid from the War Department, to build the Mid-West Cantonment in Louisville. But there were some conditions attached. Louisville, like many urban areas in the US, had it’s problems. The Temperance Leagues were waging a battle with alcohol sales, and brothels were commonplace in just about every city.
The members of the Board of Trade had some foresight into the problems that accompanied installations of this type. They were very enthusiastic about reporting on the City’s ability to manage any situation that may arise. They were aware that the city had it’s issues, and that the new facility could attract even more undesirables, who would prey on the new recruits. Some of the young men, whom have not been more than five miles home until being drafted, had never been exposed to any of the these vices while living on the farm.
On May 7, 1917, The Board of Trade made assurances in their proposal to the War Department, that everything will be done to clean up the city in preparation of the arrival of these fine young men.
The Special Committee for the Board wrote the following:
Louisville has the most excellent City Government. The Mayor and officials are men of family and reputation who feel a deep sense of responsibility for the welfare of the population who largely own their own homes. These officials of the city do not hesitate to acknowledge the obligation that rests upon them, in joining in this request to the Federal Government to place in this neighborhood the pride and flower of the young manhood of the Nation, to protect their inexperience as far as possible from the temptations that must naturally pursue such camps. The Police Force of Louisville is well trained and officered and desirous of making a record before the country in this regard.
Two years earlier in 1915, the Mayor of Louisville, Hon. John H. Buschemeyer appointed a “Vice Commission” to look into, and make recommendations as to how to eliminate or control the prostitution and “Red Light” districts in the city.
Almost every city had a Red Light district, and Louisville was no exception. Although the commission had published a report, and made its recommendations on how to eradicate the “problem”, none of the recommendations were implemented. The Mayor, who appointed the commission, was not in favor or shutting down the brothels. An ordinance passed by the General Council on March 1, 1915 was the vehicle that started the beginning of the end of the brothels. The Mayor was very much a supporter of the establishments, and felt that the city could regulate them and considered them “A necessary evil”. The commission had no powers to implement the plan or take any legal action to eliminate prostitution.
When the proposal to build Camp Zachary Taylor came to becoming a reality, so did the question of the prostitutes. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson and Federal Government formed the “Commission on Training Camp Activities” (CTCA). The Commission’s first official act was the prevention of venereal disease among the American Troops. This started at home, in the new Training Camps. The CTCA also envisioned the broader possibility of more wide sweeping social change.
Mayor John H. Buschemeyer, an advocate of regulated prostitution, sent Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, a statement of his opinion about the role of segregated vice in Louisville. He wrote:
“I do not deem it proper, practical nor advisable in my humble judgment, to close these houses and disseminate these women through the orderly self-respecting and decent people and neighborhoods of the community, but realize that with strict surveillance we can control them absolutely with our police power, believing that regulation is the best method of handling this vast and aged problem”.
The Commission on Training Camp Activities was responsible for the physical health of the men in uniform. They took this crusade that the President had assigned to them; “To mold a New American Fighting Man” to the cities that would house them. The commission set out to reinforce the characteristics of the New American Army to be “fit and straight in everything and pure and clean through and through”. The Mental, Moral and Physical Manhood of the new American Soldier was going to be “Powerful yet pure, virile yet virginal”.
The CTCA hired investigators to find the existence of vice areas, and along with their own agents, the Intelligence Department of the Army, and members of local organizations, the CTVA encouraged local communities to pass strict anti-vice legislation. The CTVA gathered detailed evidence of the vice in local areas, insisted that local law enforcement agencies enforce existing and new ordinances that were pushed through by the CTCA. The CTCA was very successful in eradicating the “Red Light” districts in Louisville and other major cities. By October of 1917, the CTCA had closed Red Light districts in nineteen cities.
This pressure by the CTCA was the final weight needed to force the closing of houses of prostitution. Louisville’s Mayor and many residents, supported the continuance of the district, but if it was allowed to remain, the building of the camp in Louisville would be put in question. The Mayor, citing the Louisville’s Vice Commission’s report of 1915, argued that the Brothels could be forced out of business by regulation of alcohol sales and entertainment. But the CTCA’s position was “To phase out the Red Light district by prohibiting music and liquor in the houses” was not the solution that they had in mind.
Although Mayor Buschemeyer struggled with the idea of closing the houses, he knew that failure to do so could mean that the camp may not be built. Buschmeyer let the Federal government know that the city would cooperate, and in July of 1917, just weeks after the start of construction had begun, the city passed legislation closing the red light district, with very little or no opposition. The Courier-Journal, who just one month earlier called the CTCA’s attempts to close the houses, “an impractical reform” and “unobtainable”, reversed their position and supported the campaign. On the first day of September, 1917, seven days before the arrival of troops, the Louisville Police Department enforced the deadline that was set forth on August 16, and the districts were forever closed.
Louisville’s “Red Light” District was generally (and ironically) centered along “Green Street”, east of Downtown Louisville. When the Houses of Ill Repute were shut down, the street name was patriotically changed to “Liberty Street’, in respect of the war effort.
………………….End Copyright Camp Zachary Taylor Historical Society 2016