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First Black chemist in bourbon industry inspires younger generations

Elmer Lucille Allen was the first Black woman to work at the Brown-Forman distillery, and now the bourbon community is working to preserve her legacy.
First Black chemist in bourbon industry inspires younger generations
Posted at 9:32 AM, Feb 20, 2024

Elmer Lucille Allen is best known for being the first Black chemist to work at the Brown-Forman company in 1966. She was a senior analyst chemist who broke glass ceilings in the bourbon industry. Now, Allen is 92 years old, and the bourbon community is working to preserve her living legacy.

Dr. Janice Fernheimer is a professor at the University of Kentucky researching Kentucky’s African American history and women in bourbon. 

"Most women who were entering the workforce were entering in, you know, secretarial roles or as teachers," Fernheimer said. "There were very few opportunities for women to use the kind of professional degrees that they had earned, and here she was in 1966 doing just that."

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While Allen is still living in Louisville, she wasn't able to speak with Scripps News Lexington about her life. Over the years, Fernheimer has interviewed her several times as a part of the "Women in Bourbon Oral History Project."

"Mrs. Allen is an icon," she said. "I don't know how else to describe her. She is one of the most charismatic, inspiring, wonderful, caring, giving, contributing human beings I have ever met."

Allen grew up in Louisville during the Jim Crow era. She attended school at the Louisville Municipal College and Nazareth College — now Spalding University. 

Fernheimer explains that Allen is also known for her artistic abilities from a young age. She says her interest in STEM naturally followed.

"When we think about chemistry and the arts and sort of the broader arts, this was a part of her curious spirit from when she was a young girl," Fernheimer said. "Initially, she thought she might go into library science; she got really excited about math and science and found herself in the medical labs. After she graduated … even though she had this amazing degree, it wasn't so easy to get a job in her field."

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Allen was honored by the Kentucky Black Bourbon Guild at its first "Untold Story: Chapter One." The guild's founder and president, Robert Beatty, explains that the organization works to honor Black stories within the bourbon industry.

"When we think about Mrs. Allen, we're basically thinking about how she trailblazed during a time period where not only were there stories about not a lot of women being in the industry, but obviously there weren't a lot of African Americans in the industry," he said.

Beatty explains that Allen’s career continues to inspire younger generations in bourbon and how her legacy will continue to uplift young Blacks in the industry.

"My organization is working on securing the intellectual property in order to continue to produce a commemorative bottle in the namesake of Mrs. Allen," he added. "Also, we're developing a scholarship fund for Mrs. Allen as well, and the proceeds will go to that scholarship."

Fernheimer explains that throughout her career, Allen has been dedicated to helping others find their own way. She hopes to continue to inspire future generations by continuing to share Allen’s story.

"You know I first came to know about her legacy in 2020 and I’m someone who's been researching about women in bourbon for that point about 10 years, and so to think that I had just heard about her — not that I’m so special — but that I’d actually been doing some research on it and I hadn’t really heard about her legacy," Fernheimer said. "When I did learn about it, it sort of became my mission to make sure everyone else knew about it too because she is such a tremendous and iconic figure."

This story was originally published by Rachel Richardson at Scripps News Lexington.

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