William Wells Brown bio will reveal he wasn’t born in Lexington

February 19, 2013

“I was born in Lexington, Ky.”

That is the first sentence of the first chapter of the first manuscript published by William Wells Brown, the first and most prolific black writer published in the 19th century. And it appears to be wrong.

Rather than being born in Lexington — as Brown might have believed when he wrote the 1847 narrative of his life in and escape from slavery — he was born on a Montgomery County farm near Mount Sterling.

That is one of several discoveries Ezra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas, has made as he has researched and written the first comprehensive biography of Brown.

Greenspan is now finishing the book, which he said W.W. Norton & Co. will publish in 2014. Also next year, The Library of America will publish the second volume of Brown’s writings that Greenspan has edited. William Wells Brown: A Reader was published by The University of Georgia Press in 2008.

“He is one of the great lives in American history,” Greenspan said of Brown. “He is being recognized now, and it’s long overdue, as being the leading force in 19th-century African-American culture.”

After escaping from slavery in 1834, Brown helped other fugitive slaves get to Canada. He taught himself to read and write, became a leading anti-slavery speaker and then launched into an impressive literary career.

Brown wrote the first published black novel, play, travelogue and song book. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first examining black service in the Civil War. He later traveled widely to advocate for temperance, education and social improvement of the black community.

Brown’s most famous book was his novel, Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter, which created a sensation when published in London in 1853. The title character is the daughter of a slave and President Thomas Jefferson. The book’s inspiration was the rumors that had long swirled about Jefferson’s now-proven relationship with his mixed-race slave, Sally Hemings.

Greenspan’s research included visiting places across America and Britain where Brown lived and worked. He came to Lexington last fall looking for evidence of Brown’s birth and owner, physician John Young. He found none.

Then, in an old copy of the Kentucky Gazette, he found a notice Young had placed telling of a smallpox epidemic in Mount Sterling. So he went to search Montgomery County court records “and Dr. John Young was all over the place.”

Greenspan also found records about the man Brown identified in his 1847 narrative as his biological father, Young’s cousin George W. Higgins, who married soon afterward and moved to Alabama.

Brown left Kentucky about age 3, when Young moved West to Missouri, settling on a large farm 60 miles west of St. Louis.

Greenspan found a lot of information about the white side of Brown’s family, but his slave ancestry remains sketchy — both in where his mother’s people came from and where they ended up. Brown’s beloved sister was sold South as a teenager, likely as part of the sex trade. His mother also was sold South, after a 17-year-old Brown persuaded her to make an unsuccessful escape attempt with him.

“Brown certainly had a sense of himself as a Kentuckian, even though the connections were loose,” Greenspan said.

He said his book would add a lot of information to what has been known about Brown and his work. But many aspects of Brown’s tumultuous private life, which included two wives and several daughters, will remain a mystery. Brown died in 1884 in Chelsea, Mass.

“Even though Brown was the most prolific black writer of the century, there are no private letters that have survived of Brown and his own family,” he said. “But the family was explosive.”

For Brown to rise from slavery, educate himself and accomplish so much is truly remarkable, Greenspan said.

“He was a person of extraordinary intelligence and perception,” he said. “Basically, it’s a story of native qualities and astounding life experience.”

Because next year will be the bicentennial of Brown’s birth, Greenspan hopes states and cities where he lived will organize commemorations. He hopes to return to speak next year in Lexington, where last fall he happened upon the new William Wells Brown Elementary School in the East End.

“I was so impressed by the way they set up the community center and the school together,” he said. “It’s exactly in the mold of Brown’s reform activities: education and community reform go hand-in-hand.”


The amazing life of Lexington slave Lewis Hayden. (Part 2)

February 12, 2013

With his own debt of freedom repaid, Lewis Hayden could focus on helping others become free. The escaped slave from Lexington already had accomplished a lot by this time, as I wrote in last Wednesday’s column.

By the late 1840s, Hayden was a leader in Boston’s black community. His boarding house and clothing store were important stops on the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped slaves start new lives in the North.

The American Anti-Slavery Society hired Hayden in 1847 as an “agent” to travel throughout the North and speak about his experiences as a slave. He was sorely disappointed when the organization’s white leaders let him go after about six months, according to Lewis Hayden and the War Against Slavery, a 1999 book by Joel Strangis, a former administrator at Sayre School in Lexington.

Apparently, Hayden was not as effective a speaker as some of the society’s other agents, who included Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, another former Lexington slave, who would become America’s first successful black novelist.

The break might have been for the best. Hayden was growing impatient with the Anti-Slavery Society and pacifist leaders such as William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator newspaper. They seemed to be all talk and no action. Circumstances would soon force Hayden into action.

The Compromise of 1850, Henry Clay’s attempt to avoid the inevitable Civil War, included a fugitive slave law. Among other things, the law made it a crime to help an escaped slave, and it forced federal officials to become slave-catchers.

The law sent shock waves through Boston’s black population. Hayden and most of the city’s 2,000 black residents were now in personal jeopardy, and they were determined to fight back.

After federal marshals arrested an escaped slave named Shadrach at a coffee house where he worked, Hayden and others snatched him from the courthouse and smuggled him out of Boston. President Millard Fillmore was outraged, and Clay denounced the incident on the floor of the Senate, asking “whether we shall have a government of white men or black men in the cities of this country.”

Hayden continued to help dozens of fugitive slaves, sometimes by force, and his fame grew.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the 1852 best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, interviewed Hayden and included his harrowing account of childhood slavery in Lexington in her 1853 follow-up book,The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (Read the excerpt here.)

In 1858, Hayden met abolitionist John Brown, who spoke of his plans to incite an armed slave revolt. Hayden raised money for what would become Brown’s unsuccessful raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859.

When the Civil War finally came, Hayden had a friend in Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew. They had known each other for years, and Hayden had helped the lawyer get elected to the legislature in 1857.

Still, many eyebrows were raised when the Pilgrim State’s governor accepted an invitation to dine at Lewis and Harriet Hayden’s home on Thanksgiving 1862. It wasn’t just a social occasion: Hayden took the opportunity to urge Andrew to persuade President Abraham Lincoln to allow blacks to fight for the Union.

Once Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect a few weeks later, Andrew formed the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Hayden was too old to serve, but he recruited troops for the unit, which had black enlisted men but white officers. The regiment’s story was told in the 1989 Academy Award-winning movie Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman.

After the war, Hayden promoted Freemasonry as a way for black men to help one another advance. And, in 1873, he was elected to a term in the Massachusetts legislature. (He was one of Massachusetts’ first state employees in 1858, when he got a job as a messenger in the secretary of state’s office.)

Hayden spent his last years on a goal he had worked 30 years to achieve. He wanted a monument on the Boston Common honoring Crispus Attucks, the only mixed-race man killed by British troops in the “Boston Massacre” of March 5, 1770, which helped spark the American Revolution.

Hayden had to settle for a monument honoring all five “massacre” victims. But he was on the platform when it was dedicated in 1888, with Attucks’ name at the top of the list. Hayden died the following year and is buried in Everett, Mass.


Lewis Hayden tells his story to author of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’

February 12, 2013

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, created a sensation when it was published in 1852. It also brought complaints from Southerners that her depictions of slavery were fabrications. So, the next year, she published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin to bolster her case. The book included her interview with Lewis Hayden. Here is that excerpt:

The following account was given to the writer by Lewis Hayden. Hayden was a fugitive slave, who escaped from Kentucky by the assistance of a young lady named Delia Webster, and a man named Calvin Fairbanks. Both were imprisoned. Lewis Hayden has earned his own character as a free citizen of Boston, where he can find an abundance of vouchers for his character.

I belonged to the Rev. Adam Rankin, a Presbyterian minister in Lexington, Kentucky.

My mother was of mixed blood—white and Indian. She married my father when he was working in a bagging factory near by. After a while my father’s owner moved off and took my father with him, which broke up the marriage. She was a very handsome woman. My master kept a large dairy, and she was the milk-woman. Lexington was a small town in those days, and the dairy was in the town. Back of the college was the masonic lodge. A man who belonged to the lodge saw my mother when she was about her work. He made proposals of a base nature to her. When she would have nothing to say to him, he told her that she need not be so independent, for if money could buy her, he would have her. My mother told old mistress, and begged that master might not sell her. But he did sell her. My mother had a high spirit, being part Indian. She would not consent to live with this man, as he wished; and he sent her to prison, and had her flogged, and punished her in various ways, so that at last she began to have crazy turns.

When I read in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” about Cassy, it put me in mind of my mother, and I wanted to tell Mrs. S—about her. She tried to kill herself several times, once with a knife and once by hanging. She had long, straight black hair, but after this it all turned white, like an old person’s. When she had her raving turns, she always talked about her children. The jailer told the owner that if he would let her go to her children, perhaps she would get quiet. They let her out one time, and she came to the place where we were. I might have been seven or eight years old—don’t know my age exactly. I was not at home when she came. I came in and found her in one of the cabins near the kitchen. She sprung and caught my arms, and seemed going to break them, and then said, “I’ll fix you so they’ll never get you!” I screamed, for I thought she was going to kill me; they came in and took me away. They tied her, and carried her off. Sometimes, when she was in her right mind, she used to tell me what things they had done to her. At last her owner sold her, for a small sum, to a man named Lackey. While with him she had another husband and several children. After a while this husband either died or was sold, I do not remember which. The man then sold her to another person, named Bryant. My own father’s owner now came and lived in the neighbourhood of this man, and brought my mother with him. He had had another wife and family of children where he had been living. He and my mother came together again, and finished their days together. My mother almost recovered her mind in her last days.

I never saw anything in Kentucky which made me suppose that ministers or professors of religion considered it any more wrong to separate the families of slaves by sale than to separate any domestic animals.

There may be ministers and professors of religion who think it is wrong, but I never met with them. My master was a minister, and yet he sold my mother, as I have related.

When he was going to leave Kentucky for Pennsylvania, he sold all my brothers and sisters at auction. I stood by and saw them sold. When I was just going up on to the block, he swapped me off for a pair of carriage-horses. I looked at those horses with strange feelings. I had indulged hopes that master would take me into Pennsylvania with him, and I should get free. How I looked at those horses, and walked round them, and thought for them I was sold!

It was commonly reported that my master had said in the pulpit that there was no more harm in separating a family of slaves than a litter of pigs. I did not hear him say it, and so cannot say whether this is true or not.

It may seem strange, but it is a fact. I had more sympathy and kind advice, in my efforts to get my freedom, from gamblers and no doubt the other, and such sort of men, than Christians.

Some of the gamblers were very kind to me.

I never knew a slave-trader that did not seem to think, in his heart, that the trade was a bad one. I knew a great many of them, such as Neal, McAnn, Cobb, Stone, Pulliam, and Davis, &c. They were like Haley—they meant to repent when they got through.

Intelligent coloured people in my circle of acquaintance, as a general thing, felt no security whatever for their family ties. Some, it is true, who belonged to rich families, felt some security; but those of us who looked deeper, and knew how many were not rich that seemed so, and saw how fast money slipped away, were always miserable. The trader was all around, the slave-pen at hand, and we did not know what time any of us might be in it. Then there were the rice-swamps, and the sugar and cotton plantations; we had had them held before us as terrors, by our masters and mistresses, all our lives. We knew about them all; and when a friend was carried off, why, it was the same as death, for we could not write or hear, and never expected to see them again.

I have one child who is buried in Kentucky, and that grave is pleasant to think of. I’ve got another that is sold nobody knows where, and that I never can bear to think of.

— LEWIS HAYDEN.


Much more at stake than another old building

May 30, 2010

The old First African Baptist Church building at the corner of Short and Deweese streets is much more than a Lexington landmark with an uncertain future.

It is an impressive structure with an amazing story. It is an opportunity for many people to figure out how to do the right thing. And it is one more example of why Lexington needs better ways to preserve its heritage.

The Italianate-style church was built in 1856 by the oldest congregation of slaves and free blacks west of the Allegheny Mountains.

It was, in many ways, a monument to the Rev. London Ferrill, who built First African Baptist into Kentucky’s largest church. He became a hero in 1833 when a cholera epidemic killed 500 of Lexington’s 7,000 residents. Ferrill was one of three ministers who stayed in town to bury the dead and minister to survivors of both races.

First African Baptist moved to a new facility on Price Road in 1987, took its stained-glass windows and sold the historic building to nearby Central Christian Church, which has used it for a subsidized child-care center.

Central Christian, needing money for other things, recently agreed to sell the building to jeweler Joe Rosenberg, although the deal still must be approved by a congregational vote.

Rosenberg says he has no intention of tearing down the building. He wants it renovated to house a non-profit organization or for some other use.

The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation is trying to convince Rosenberg and Central Christian to legally protect the building with a preservation easement. That would not restrict the building’s use; only prohibit demolition. So far, neither Rosenberg nor the church have agreed, and that worries preservationists.

After all, Rosenberg partnered with developer Dudley Webb in the ill-conceived CentrePointe project, which destroyed an entire block of downtown buildings in 2008 and left behind an empty pasture. Several of those buildings had historic or architectural significance.

Rosenberg has done a lot of good work in Lexington over the years, and he has a reputation for being a man of his word. I believe him when he says he has no intention of demolishing this building.

But Rosenberg also had no intention of demolishing the old Woolworth building he owned on Main Street. He worked for 14 years to find ways to restore and reuse it. But things didn’t work out for a variety of reasons, many of which were beyond Rosenberg’s control. The art deco gem was demolished in 2004.

This situation presents some important opportunities for Lexington. It is an opportunity to preserve one of the most significant structures built here by African Americans before the Civil War. And it is an opportunity to learn from CentrePointe and other preservation failures.

Lexington’s civic, business, preservation and African American communities must help Joe Rosenberg keep his word. A project like this will require more than one man’s energy, creativity and expertise. And it is more than one man’s responsibility.

The only way to really save the old First African Baptist building is to find a new use for it. While historic tax credits can help pay renovation costs, long-term preservation will depend on the building having a purpose that makes economic sense.

But even if that can be done, it will not solve Lexington’s larger problem. Historic preservation cannot remain an endless series of building-by-building battles.

Adaptive reuse of fine, old buildings is as much about creating a vibrant economy for the future as it is about preserving history and memories. Lexington needs a broader, more flexible set of preservation tools than the current system of historic neighborhood overlays. That could include local landmark designations and laws that make it harder to demolish any historic building without a compelling reason.

Lexington has lost so much of its bricks-and-mortar heritage over the past few decades. If we want to build on our cultural identity to create a more prosperous future, we simply cannot afford to lose much more.


Black minister unites races 156 years after death

February 20, 2010

The Rev. London Ferrill spent much of his life serving as a bridge between Lexington’s black and white communities. Now, almost 156 years after his death, he is doing it again.

Ferrill may have been the most famous man in Lexington you’ve probably never heard of. Born into slavery in Virginia in 1789 and later freed, he was an influential preacher in the black community here. His funeral procession of nearly 5,000 people was the second-largest the city had ever seen, after Henry Clay’s two years earlier.

The Episcopal Church has invited First African Baptist Church to services Saturday honoring the memory of Ferrill, the only black man buried in the Old Episcopal Burying Ground on East Third Street.

The Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts Schori, the presiding bishop of the national Episcopal Church, will be among the speakers at the 1:30 p.m. service at Christ Church Cathedral on Market Street.

Choirs from local Episcopal churches and First African Baptist will perform, and the program will include a new composition that John Linker, Good Shepherd Episcopal Church’s organist and choirmaster, wrote to accompany the text of a prayer attributed to Ferrill.

Ministers will dedicate the plaque for a monument honoring Ferrill that will be placed in the cemetery later this year. And Ferrill’s broken tombstone formally will be given to First African Baptist, where it has been on display for two decades.

These and other efforts to commemorate Ferrill are an attempt at reconciliation, said Robert Voll, a member of Christ Church who oversees the cemetery.

“I commend the Episcopal Church for doing this,” said the Rev. Nathl Moore, pastor of First African Baptist. “Whenever we can build bridges, it’s a positive thing.”

When he was 9, the woman who owned Ferrill died and he was sold to Col. Samuel Overton for $600. At age 11, Ferrill (sometimes spelled Ferrell) almost drowned in a river, and that was said to have led to a religious conversion. He gained his freedom after Overton’s death and moved with his wife Rodah in about 1815 to Lexington, where Overton had relatives.

Ferrill was trained as a carpenter and, despite little formal education, developed a reputation as a fine preacher. He assisted and later succeeded Peter Durrett, known as “Old Captain,” who in 1790 had started the first African church west of the Allegheny Mountains.

Shortly before Durrett died in 1823, Lexington’s city trustees appointed Ferrill as the official preacher to the black community. Soon afterward, the Elkhorn Baptist Association, a group of Southern Baptist churches in central Kentucky, admitted First African Church into its fold.

White leaders were nervous about Lexington’s growing black population, most of whom were slaves, and they apparently saw Ferrill as someone they could trust. When a rival black preacher tried to force him out of state under a law that prohibited free blacks born outside Kentucky from staying here for more than 30 days, Lexington leaders persuaded the General Assembly to give Ferrill an exemption.

In June 1833, a few months after the Episcopal cemetery was created, a cholera epidemic swept Lexington. The disease killed 500 of the city’s 7,000 residents, including Ferrill’s wife. He was one of three ministers who stayed in town to bury the dead and comfort survivors, black and white.

After the epidemic, Ferrill’s stature in Lexington grew with his church. First African Baptist was the largest church in Kentucky by 1850, with more than 1,800 members. From 1833 until it moved to Price Road in 1987, the church occupied a sanctuary that still stands at the corner of Short and Dewees streets.

Ferrill is said to have baptized 5,000 people and performed hundreds of marriages, using the vows “until death or distance do us part” in the case of slaves who might be separated by sale.

Ferrill died of a heart attack in 1854 and was buried in the all-white Episcopal cemetery.

The Rev. L.H. McIntyre, retired pastor of First African Baptist, said he has done a lot of research on Ferrill and suspects that his father was white, which could help explain his acceptance by white leaders. No images or descriptions of him are known to exist.

“London Ferrill was a force for unity, a force for connecting the black and white communities of Lexington,” Voll said. But amid the intense racism that swept Kentucky in the decades after the Civil War, his role was largely forgotten.

After The Lexington Cemetery was established in 1849, the Old Episcopal Burying Ground with its Victorian groundskeeper’s cottage was neglected. The cemetery became an island, separated from the predominantly black neighborhood that surrounded it by a tall iron fence and locked gates.

Nobody knows exactly where in the cemetery Ferrill was buried. His grave and headstone were separated by the time a portion of the cemetery thought to have been unused was sold to the city in the 1980s for the widening and extension of Rose Street, now Elm Tree Lane.

McIntyre said a groundskeeper let him take Ferrill’s tombstone from a pile of broken, misplaced stones. “I wasn’t trying to steal it, just keep it from being lost,” he said. Christ Church didn’t seek the tombstone’s return.

“They’ve taken better care of it than we ever have,” Voll said.

Voll, a retired Ashland Inc. human resources executive, began overseeing the old cemetery four years ago. One of his goals has been to improve the church’s relationship with both the neighborhood and the African American community.

That led to the planned monument to Ferrill as well as a state historic marker for the cemetery.

It also led Christ Church to allow adjacent land it acquired in 2000 to become a community vegetable garden in 2008.

Moore, the pastor of First African Baptist, said his congregation appreciates the Episcopal Church’s initiative. And he is even more impressed by the church allowing its land to become the London Ferrill Community Garden.

“It’s good we can worship together,” Moore said. “But the community needs us to do more than worship together. It needs us to work together.”


Black history encyclopedia has fans, needs funds

February 17, 2010

It never fails: Gerald Smith goes to a community to speak about the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia project, and he leaves having learned something unexpected.

People bring old photographs, documents and newspaper clippings to show him. They tell him tales about local history. They even drive him to hidden slave cemeteries and show him little museums, public library archives and memorabilia collections he never knew existed.

“There is a tremendous amount of interest and enthusiasm for this project,” said Smith, below right, a University of Kentucky history professor and one of the encyclopedia’s three general editors.

Along with famous people such as Muhammad Ali and many African-American firsts, the encyclopedia will document fascinating lives that few people know about.

For example, Margaret Garner, a slave born in Boone County in 1833, was the inspiration for Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved. And Joe Simons, a Fleming County slave, was known for his ability to read the Bible upside down. (The woman who owned him read the Bible aloud while he stood at her feet fanning flies; that’s how he taught himself to read.)

Although slavery and the civil rights movement have been well documented, little has been written about many aspects of the parallel universe of black life in Kentucky before integration.

Owensboro’s black citizens organized the Negro Chautauqua in 1907 to provide intellectual stimulation and religious education. There were black newspapers such as the Baptist Monitor, and baseball teams such as the Owingsville Giants of the 1920s and Lawrenceburg Athletic Club of the 1950s.

“African-Americans had their own world,” Smith said. “There were people, places and events of distinction that shaped not only their lives, but the history of Kentucky.”

The encyclopedia is an effort to verify and record much of that history — and to serve as a springboard for further research and writing that will lead to greater cultural understanding.

But like many worthwhile projects in this economic downturn, the encyclopedia is threatened by lack of funding. As Black History Month began, the encyclopedia’s publication date was pushed from 2011 to 2013, and “if we don’t have $30,000 by Aug. 1, it’s pretty much over,” Smith said.

Since the project began two years ago, it has received strong support from University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. and smaller contributions from several other Kentucky colleges, universities and foundations, said Stephen Wrinn, director of University Press of Kentucky, which is publishing the encyclopedia. Smith said that, after giving speeches about the project, he often receives small donations from people in the audience.

Like the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, published last year, this book will cost about $700,000 in cash and in-kind support to produce. Only about half of that has been raised.

Wrinn said the project needs a private individual or two to step up and champion a fund-raising campaign, as Mike Hammons and Alice Sparks did for the Northern Kentucky book.

“Gerald and the others have done a good job of getting it up and running,” Wrinn said, and the fund-raising is being co ordinated by the press’s Thomas D. Clark Foundation. “I’m confident we’re going to do it.”

Wrinn said he isn’t aware of an African-American encyclopedia for any other state. The Kentucky Encyclopedia, published in 1992, was a pioneer, too; many states have since done their own. “This is an opportunity for Kentucky to again be a leader,” he said.

So far, 1,271 entries have been chosen for the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, and 242 have been completed. Several hundred more have been assigned, and Smith is looking for volunteers to join the approximately 80 writers on the project. For more information, go to www.uky.edu/kaae.

Editing the book with Smith are history professors Karen C. McDaniel of Eastern Kentucky University and John A. Hardin of Western Kentucky University. They and other historians are writing 14 topical essays on issues including civil rights, education, religion and women.

Graduate students in history are doing much of the research and verification, and most of the project’s funds go to pay them.

“It will fill many of the gaps in Kentucky history, and in the history of the South as well,” Smith said of the encyclopedia. “I have met some of the nicest people around the state. One thing I’ve learned about Kentuckians is that they love and appreciate their history.”


Rediscovering slavery at My Old Kentucky Home

August 2, 2009

BARDSTOWN — Gerald Smith, a Lexington native and University of Kentucky history professor, had never visited My Old Kentucky Home State Park before last summer.

Smith arrived early for a speaking engagement at the Nelson County Public Library and had a couple of hours to kill. So he and a student decided to take the park’s tour of Federal Hill, the Rowan family mansion where, legend has it, Stephen Collins Foster was inspired to write Kentucky’s state song.

“The people were very nice,” Smith said. But he noticed that the tour guide, dressed in a hoop skirt, kept referring to the “servants.”

“I finally said, ‘You mean the slaves?'” Smith recalled.

The tour didn’t include the mansion’s attic or basement, where slaves lived, or small rooms beside the kitchen, where they worked.

Finally, Smith asked where the slaves were buried. In the cemetery beside the garden? No, the guide said. Out back. Way out back.

Smith and student A.J. Hartsfield walked across a field to a stand of old trees. Underneath, inside a split-rail fence, were 22 small, unmarked stones and a plaque dedicated in 1945 to Judge John Rowan’s “faithful retainers.”

“As we approached the entrance to the little wooden fence, this guy was looking for his golf ball,” Smith said. The cemetery is in the bend of the 13th hole of the park’s golf course. Balls frequently land there.

“There was nothing sacred about it,” Smith said of the slave cemetery. “It was painful. It was sad.”

Smith went home and shared his experience with two other prominent African-Americans, Lexington writer Frank X Walker and Everett McCorvey, the UK Opera Theatre director who has sung My Old Kentucky Home many times in concerts here and overseas.

They decided to approach state officials with a simple message: We must do better. And, with the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games about to focus the world’s attention on Kentucky, we must do it quickly.

“Folks sing the song; it stirs up such emotion,” Smith said. “It celebrates the state’s history and culture and hospitality and traditions. But this is the way we remember the people who built and lived and worked at this symbol, this monument, this shrine to Kentucky. The African-American presence here has been erased.”

Smith, McCorvey and Walker were hardly the first to complain. But their message seems to have been heard — loud and clear.

“We have already taken a number of steps to interpret things better,” said Gerry Van der Meer, the state parks commissioner. “There’s a bit of uncomfortableness, naturally, about slavery. But it’s a fact. It’s a part of history. We’re embracing this.”

Several changes are planned for My Old Kentucky Home. And Van der Meer has ordered a review of how African-American history is interpreted at all state-run parks and historic sites.

Historically, a raw nerve

My Old Kentucky Home, the place and the song, hold special significance, both for Kentucky’s international image and its complex history of race relations.

The mansion is one of Kentucky’s most recognizable landmarks, depicted on both the state’s postage stamp and quarter. It is the state’s most-visited historic site, with more than 55,000 people touring the mansion each year.

My Old Kentucky Home is the most famous song about the state, sung for an international television audience by more than 100,000 people in the Churchill Downs grandstand before the Kentucky Derby each May. But it wasn’t until 1986 that the word “darkies” in the song’s lyrics was officially changed to “people.”

Foster published the song in 1853, as Kentucky was in the cross-hairs of the national debate over slavery that would lead to the Civil War.

While many people love the song for its romanticized view of Kentucky, they rarely sing past the first verse. The complete song, which Foster originally called Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night, is actually about a slave being “sold down the river.”

While researching My Old Kentucky Home, Smith came across a journal article by the late Thomas Clark, Kentucky’s most eminent historian, published in 1936. It discussed parallels between the song and the controversial, anti-slavery novel of Foster’s time, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Many whites have always tried to portray slavery in Kentucky as somehow more humane than in the Deep South, but abolitionists of the 1850s argued just the opposite, Clark wrote. That’s because slavery in Kentucky was more personal.

Plantations were smaller, and Kentucky slaves had more interaction with their owners than in many Southern states. Whippings and runaways were common, and tens of thousands of Kentucky slaves were separated from their families each year and sold in the South for profit as the cotton, sugar and rice industries grew.

“It is significant,” Clark wrote more than 70 years ago, “that the author’s use of a title obscured his context sufficiently to cause Kentuckians, to whom Uncle Tom’s Cabin was anathema, to take the song to their hearts and claim it as their very own.”

For years after state officials opened Federal Hill to tourists in 1923, black men were hired to walk around portraying Foster’s song characters “Old Black Joe” and “Old Uncle Ned.”

“They fit that standard stereotype of the happy servant who was there to welcome the white guests to the mansion,” Smith said.

He sees the 1945 cemetery plaque honoring Rowan’s “faithful retainers” as part of the effort to soften Kentucky’s collective memory.

“If we allow the site to exist the way it is now, then we perpetuate the myth that slavery was a benign institution in Kentucky,” said Smith, who has been working for years on the Kentucky African-American Encyclopedia project. “This is not about compensatory history. It’s just about history.”

Park changes planned

Officials are working on several modifications at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, where the mansion has been meticulously restored and chimes broadcast Foster tunes across the grounds.

Tour guide scripts are being revised to reflect research on slaves at Federal Hill, who numbered from two to 100 at any given time between the 1790s and 1865. Interpretive displays are planned as money becomes available.

Eventually, the park would like to have audio tour equipment to supplement its small guide staff.

Park Director Alice Willett Heaton is seeking an archaeological survey to find cabin foundations and other evidence of where slaves lived and worked. It is thought the cabins were located near the amphitheater where a Stephen Foster musical has been performed since 1958.

Safety and accessibility issues may keep the attic and basement closed to visitors, Heaton said. But there are discussions about converting one of the rooms beside the kitchen into a place to explain slavery at Federal Hill.

Van der Meer said trees will be planted to screen the slave cemetery from the state park system’s most popular golf course.

“Somebody’s family is buried there,” Van der Meer said. “We want that to be treated more respectfully.”

Heaton is looking for money to build a path from the house to the cemetery. The park master plan she developed in 1987 called for the path, as well as moving the 1930s golf course further away from the cemetery.

She got money a few years ago to move a fairway that went between the house and cemetery. But she hasn’t been able to move the other hole, or build the path.

“It’s always been a money issue,” Heaton said. “But I’m thrilled with Dr. Smith’s interest. This could be a real opportunity for us.”

Smith said he has been pleased by the response from state officials. He plans to work with them to make sure changes are made.

Smith said he wants Kentucky’s international image to be positive — but historically accurate. “For me, it’s about telling the rest of the story,” he said. “So far, we’ve only been telling half of it.”

Perhaps enough time has passed, enough progress has been made, that both black and white Kentuckians can begin coming to grips with slavery and a racist past.

“I’m excited about the future,” Smith said. “I’m excited about the cemetery, about the possibilities and ways of including African-American history in that story of My Old Kentucky Home.”

As a historian, Smith acknowledges the difficulty of accurately interpreting African-American history at My Old Kentucky Home. Little physical evidence remains. Records are sketchy, and much is based on oral tradition.

But, he notes, Federal Hill’s very association with Stephen Foster is based on oral tradition among the Rowans, who were the songwriter’s cousins. There’s no written evidence that Foster ever visited the mansion, much less set his song there.

“We know the slaves were there,” Smith said. “But that other fellow, the one they’ve got the statue to out in the garden, we’re not sure about him.”

Click on each photo to enlarge


Lyric Theatre’s rebirth a long-awaited dream

July 16, 2009

Sometimes a dream deferred can come true.

You could see that dream in the faces of many of the 200 people who gathered Thursday morning at the corner of East Third Street and Elm Tree Lane to break ground for the long-delayed Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center project.

The crowd included community leaders and city officials, some of whom had worked for 18 years to restore the Lyric, an icon of Lexington’s African American community.

It also included many longtime Lexingtonians who have been waiting 46 years for their Lyric to reopen.

They’ll have another year to wait before the cavernous shell of a theater is rebuilt as a city-owned performing arts and community center.

“It means a number of years of frustration are over,” said Robert Jefferson, a former Urban County Council member who helped start the long crusade. “This is a very emotional time for me.”

After a 1987 fire damaged the Kentucky Theatre on Main Street and the city announced plans to restore it, Jefferson urged then-Mayor Scotty Baesler to appropriate $250,000 for the Lyric.

It was only fair, Jefferson said: “As a native Lexingtonian, I hadn’t had the right to go to the Kentucky Theatre because of segregation.”

But it would take years of struggle and legal disputes before Mayor Jim Newberry, the Urban County Council and a dedicated group of community activists would succeed in putting together the Lyric’s $9 million renovation and operating plan.

Many of those who came out remembered the Lyric as the place where black Lexingtonians came to see movies, vaudeville shows and jazz musicians from 1948 until the theater closed in 1963.

Tassa Wigginton said her childhood Saturdays were spent at the Lyric, visiting with friends, eating popcorn and watching cartoons and movies.

“We came with a quarter; 10 cents to get in and 15 cents to spend,” she said. “One day when I was a teenager my daddy let me come with him to see a stage show and I thought I was in seventh heaven.

“This was really the community center,” Wigginton said. “This and Dunbar High School were the pride of the black community.”

Don Garrison said he began working at the Lyric selling tickets and ended up as its last manager. “I was here the night we shut it down,” he said, noting the irony that desegregation ruined the Lyric’s business.

Julian Jackson Jr., another early supporter of the Lyric’s restoration, said he hopes the new facility will preserve the East End’s colorful history.

Many people know the area was once home to Lexington’s pre-Keeneland race track and the famous black jockeys Isaac Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield. But Jackson said they may not know of other neighborhood greats, such as the opera singer William Ray and the inventor Joseph Bailey Lyons.

As with the Lyric, desegregation led to decline in the historically black East End — a decline that has been in rapid reverse over the past decade, thanks to work by the Urban League, city government and many others.

S.T. Roach, the legendary basketball coach at the old all-black Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, was thrilled to be able to attend Thursday’s ceremony.

“I’ve been waiting for this for many years,” said Roach, 93, who once worked at the Lyric and ran an ice cream bar next door.

Roach recalled the vitality of the old East End and thinks the Lyric’s restoration could kick the neighborhood’s renaissance into high gear.

Former councilman George Brown agreed.

“I think the new Lyric will become a meeting place, a community place, a place for new artists to be discovered,” Brown said. “Who knows what could be spawned here, from Third and Elm Tree Lane? Only the mind can imagine.”


Trail shows Lexington’s roots and heritage

September 5, 2008

There’s a lot more to Lexington history than Henry Clay, Mary Todd Lincoln and Man o’ War.

Take, for example, the contributions African-Americans have made to the city’s growth and development since the very beginning.

This is a good weekend to learn some of that history, as the east end will be alive with the 20th annual Roots and Heritage Festival.

For a good introduction, consider walking, biking or driving the African American Heritage Trail in downtown Lexington, which includes 10 sites that have been touchstones in the community since the days of slavery.

The Heritage Trail was developed by Doris Wilkinson, a Lexington native who in 1958 became the first African-American woman to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Kentucky and in 1967 became the first to be hired as a full-time faculty member.

Wilkinson, a sociologist, got the idea for the trail after spending several summers at Harvard University.

“What made Boston and Cambridge stand out was that they had incorporated ethnic diversity and history into their city’s public face,” Wilkinson said. “I thought, what is here that would link the growth and history of Lexington to African-Americans? How can we further facilitate the image of Lexington as a progressive city with a rich ethnic heritage?”

Wilkinson developed the trail and put together a pamphlet in 2000 that was quickly embraced by the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. Copies can be downloaded from the bureau’s Web site. Wilkinson hopes to add sites to the trail and encourage its use in education.

African-Americans make up only 13.8 percent of Lexington’s population, according to census figures. But before the Civil War, it was twice that. In 1860, one in four Lexington residents was a slave, and Fayette was one of Kentucky’s largest slave-holding counties.

Lexington also was one of the South’s largest slave markets. Thousands of African-Americans were sold on the block at Cheapside, near the old Fayette County Courthouse. And a whipping post was erected there in 1847, where slaves could be punished for such infractions as disobeying their masters or violating the 7 p.m. curfew.

That history wasn’t acknowledged with a state historical marker until five years ago. Cheapside is one stop on the Heritage Trail. Want to learn more? The 1955 book Lincoln and the Bluegrass by Lexington lawyer William Townsend includes a vivid and well-documented account of the ugliest chapter in Lexington’s history.

Like at Cheapside, nothing but markers remain at some other sites on the trail — the offices of pioneering black physicians on North Broadway, the long-gone pond off Bolivar Street where baptisms were held, and the home of Isaac Murphy, a jockey who won the Kentucky Derby three times.

The same is true of two more sites Wilkinson plans to add to the trail: the Mammoth Insurance Co. on De weese Street, and the former home of Consolidated Baptist Church. The old church on South Upper was recently demolished to make way for a fast-food restaurant.

A marker about the Mammoth Insurance Co. was placed across the street from its former offices at the site of another stop on the trail, the Polk-Dalton Infirmary, where several African-American doctors practiced when Deweese Street was the hub of segregated Lexington’s black community. The infirmary building now houses offices of the Urban League.

The other sites on the Heritage Trail are old African-American churches scattered throughout downtown. They give a sense of the importance of religion in the community, as well as the close proximity in which Lexington’s black and white residents lived and worshiped in the 19th century despite their separate social structures.

“The churches were sort of havens, a refuge from segregation,” Wilkinson said. “That’s why they dominate the trail. They were the major institutions.”

The oldest congregation is Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church, which was organized in 1790 by slave Peter Duerett. The church has been at its West Maxwell Street site since 1822.

St. Paul AME church on North Upper was built in 1826, right behind fashionable Gratz Park. The current building is the result of a 1906 remodeling.

Main Street Baptist Church was built in 1870 next door to the house where Mary Todd lived for seven years before she married Abraham Lincoln in 1839. The original church’s cornerstone is part of a wall beside the current sanctuary.

The beautiful East Second Street Christian Church building has stood on Constitution Street since 1880. Another handsome 19th-century building on the trail is the old First Baptist Church sanctuary at the corner of Short and Deweese streets.

Of course, there’s a lot more African-American history beyond downtown.

There are more than a dozen rural black communities in Fayette County such Jimtown, Uttingertown and Bracktown.

There were other notable figures, such as the Chilesburg-born Jimmy Winkfield, one of the early 20th century’s greatest jockeys. He rode for the czar in Russia and retired in France. His fascinating life story was told in the 2006 book Black Maestro, by New York Times racing writer Joe Drape.

If you have a couple of hours free this weekend, the African American Heritage Trail is a good place to start.


TODAY IN LEXGO: More on the Roots and Heritage Festival