Public art starts conversations, and the debate over two statues of local Confederate heroes has started some great discussions about other figures from Lexington’s history who are worthy of honor and remembrance.
I mentioned several in a column three weeks ago and I asked readers for more. I got many good suggestions, including Mary Todd Lincoln, artist Matthew Jouett and John Bradford, an early Lexington publisher, education advocate and civic leader.
I especially liked the suggestions I received for honoring notable black men and women from the past whose accomplishments against great odds have often been overlooked.
Yvonne Giles, an authority on local black history, liked my suggestion of Mary E. Britton (1855-1925), the city’s first black woman physician. Britton also was a journalist, teacher, social reformer and civil rights activist.
Giles noted that Britton’s sister, Julia Britton Hooks (1852-1942), was equally deserving. Like her sister a graduate of Berea College, she became Berea’s first black faculty member, teaching instrumental music. She later moved to Memphis, married Charles Hooks and opened a music school. Blues legend W.C. Handy was among her students. Selma Lewis wrote a 1986 biography of Hooks, The Angel of Beale Street.
In 1909, Hooks became a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — an organization led by her grandson, Benjamin Hooks, from 1977 to 1992.
Their brother, Tom Britton (1870-1901), was a successful jockey. Lexington has recently honored two great black jockeys, Isaac Murphy (1861-1896) with a park and Oliver Lewis (1856-1924) with a street.
Another great black jockey worthy of honor is Jimmy Winkfield (1882-1974), whose fascinating life story was chronicled in the 2006 book Black Maestro, by New York Times racing writer Joe Drape.
Giles suggested several accomplished black women from Lexington’s past, including E. Belle Jackson (1848-1942), who led creation of the Colored Orphan Industrial Home, now the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center on Georgetown Street.
Charlotte Dupuy (1787-after 1866) was a slave owned by Henry Clay. She sued him for her freedom in 1829, when they were living in Washington, D.C. and he was secretary of state. The gutsy Dupuy lost her legal case, but Clay eventually freed her.
Giles also suggested “Aunt Charlotte,” whose full name and years of life are unknown. She came to Lexington as a slave in the late 1700s and became free when her owners died. She sold baked goods at the public market. She is best known for buying the one-year vagrancy indenture of a white man, William “King” Solomon, in 1833 and setting him free. He was a drunk who soon became a local hero for burying victims of cholera epidemic.
Several black women educators are worthy of honor, Giles said. Among them: Elizabeth Cook Fouse (1875-1952), founder of the Phillis Wheatley YWCA in Lexington; and Fannie Hathaway White (1870-1958), a longtime teacher, principal and education advocate.
White was the sister of Isaac S. Hathaway (1872-1967) a sculptor who was the first black man to design a U.S. coin. He created images for the Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver half dollars.
Several readers suggested balancing Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan’s statue outside the old courthouse with a monument honoring black Union soldiers, who trained at Camp Nelson and fought in all combat branches during the Civil War.
Rab Hagin, a Lexington journalist, suggested several of those soldiers whose quotes would be appropriate for a monument, including this one from Sgt. Maj. Thomas Boswell of the 116th U.S. Colored Infantry: “We are Kentucky boys, and there is no regiment in the field that ever fought better.”
Several readers suggested Charles Young (1864-1922), who was born into slavery near Maysville, became the third black graduate of West Point and the first black Army colonel. He likely would have become a general were it not for racism among his fellow officers. A community center on East Third Street is named for him.
I have always thought Thomas Hunt Morgan, one of the most influential American scientists of the 20th century, was more worthy of a statue than his Confederate uncle. But there also is black man worth considering, whose father was one of the general’s slaves — and may also have been his son.
Garrett A. Morgan (1877-1963) was an inventor and entrepreneur who created and marketed a smoke-protection safety hood for firefighters that saved many lives and a chemical solution for straightening hair. He also designed an unsuccessful version of an early traffic signal.