Like much of local black history, 1920s blues song a surprise

February 23, 2014

February is Black History Month, and this is the third year I have written one column a week during the month about Kentucky black history.

I’ve always found history interesting, but working on these pieces has been a special treat, because much of this information is new to both me and most Herald-Leader readers.

While I do some of the research myself, I get a lot of help from professional and amateur historians, both black and white. Like me, they have become fascinated with this rich vein of history that until recent years was rarely explored or publicized.

Special thanks this year to these sources for research, ideas and other information:

  • Yvonne Giles, an amateur historian who has become an authority on Lexington black history. Her extensive research on the Lexington Colored Fair was invaluable.
  • Maureen Peters, a Lexington architect, who pointed me to outstanding research that she and her friend, the architectural historian Rebecca McCarley, had done on brick mason and entrepreneur Henry Tandy and his son, architect Vertner Woodson Tandy.
  • Thomas Tolliver, a former Herald-Leader reporter who lives in the East End and is passionate about preserving its history.
  • Former State Sen. Georgia Powers of Louisville, who generously shared her own story and information about how the 1964 March on Frankfort was organized.
  • Former State Sen. Joe Graves of Lexington, another March on Frankfort organizer, who candidly discussed how the civil rights movement influenced his life and the white community.
  • The Kentucky Historical Society.

As a postscript, Kakie Urch, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications and a radio host on WRFL, sent me a 1920s blues song I had never heard of before: The Lexington Kentucky Blues, by Papa Charlie Jackson.

Click on the video below to hear Jackson singing about coming to Lexington to play at the Colored Fair, seeing the great racehorse Man O’ War, going to the races, spending time on Limestone Street and meeting J. Rice Porter, the Colored Fair’s president from 1926-28. It sounds as if he had a great time.

Like much of local black history before I started this project, the Lexington Kentucky Blues was new to me.

 

 


50 years ago, March on Frankfort pushed Kentucky toward change

February 1, 2014

 march3The March on Frankfort crowd, estimated at 10,000, stretched from the Capitol steps down Capitol Avenue on March 5, 1964. Associated Press photos

 

This is the story of a black woman from Louisville and a white man from Lexington who helped bring 10,000 people to Frankfort to change Kentucky forever.

The March on Frankfort on March 5, 1964, featured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Jackie Robinson, who had broken major-league baseball’s color barrier; and the popular folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary.

The 10,000 people who marched to the Capitol steps that cold, wet day were demanding state legislation to keep blacks from being discriminated against in restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations.

March organizers knew that Kentucky lawmakers needed public pressure to force them to do the right thing, which has so often been the case.

To mark the 50th anniversary of what became one of the nation’s most significant civil rights protests, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and other groups plan a re-enactment on March 5. (For more information: Kchr.ky.gov.)

The March on Frankfort was the brainchild of the late Frank Stanley Jr., editor of The Louisville Defender, a black newspaper. He recruited King, Robinson and Peter, Paul and Mary to draw national attention to the event, while a network of civil rights and religious leaders throughout Kentucky raised an army of people to march behind them.

march2Georgia Davis Powers was office manager for the march’s organizing committee, Allied Organization for Civil Rights. She came to the role with experience, having organized volunteers for Lt. Gov. Wilson Wyatt’s losing bid for the U.S. Senate in 1962 and Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor in 1963.

But Powers, now 90, told me recently that she began her personal campaign against discrimination many years earlier. Because her factory-worker father was talented enough to get “a white man’s job,” she grew up in Louisville’s black middle class.

“I had a little white girlfriend who was my age, 8 years old, and we wanted to go to school together, but we couldn’t,” she said. “When you are discriminated against, it does something to your psyche and you never get over it.”

Powers’ job on the day of the march was to pick up King and Robinson at Louisville’s airport and bring them to Frankfort. Her brother, who worked at a funeral, got a limousine, and they arranged for a police escort.

“Jackie Robinson rode up front with my brother, and Dr. King got in the back seat with me because I needed to brief him on the bill, where it stood and what I thought the possibilities were,” Powers said. “That was the first time I’d met him.”

She marched a few steps behind King that day and sat beside the stage as he, Robinson and others made remarks to the rain-soaked crowd.

Breathitt wasn’t at the march, although his 15-year-old daughter, Mary Frances, was among the marchers. A reporter told Powers the governor was in his office. “Since he won’t come out,” she told other march leaders, “we’ll go see him.”

So when the benediction had been said and the crowd began dispersing, Powers led King, Robinson, Stanley and a few others inside the Capitol. She knocked on the governor’s door.

The civil rights leaders had a cordial meeting with Breathitt and posed for photographs. But Powers said he was non-committal, explaining that as a new governor he needed to build rapport with legislators.

“He said, ‘I’ll do what I can,'” she recalled. “But the bill failed.”

When the General Assembly met next, in 1966, Kentucky became the first Southern state to enact a civil rights law. Breathitt backed the law. Others instrumental in its passage included Rep. Foster Pettit, who would later become the first mayor of Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, and John Y. Brown Sr., father of the future governor.

A key organizer of white participation in the March on Frankfort was Joe Graves of Lexington, whose background could not have been more different than Powers’.

Graves’ great-grandfather was the younger brother of Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in 19th century America. The industrialist later became a philanthropist, leaving a legacy of public library buildings in communities across the nation. Graves’ father owned Graves-Cox, a popular store where well-dressed Lexington men bought their clothes.

Like Powers, Graves said his fight against discrimination began in childhood.

When Graves was 9, illness confined him to a wheelchair. The Carnegie family owned almost all of scenic Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast, and he spent time there with relatives. The family hired a black boy his age named William to be a companion.

Graves, 83, recalled in an interview last week how he and William were playing in his aunt’s yard one day at lunchtime, and he called out to her asking if William could stay for lunch. William said, “Joe, I can’t do that. I’m going home for lunch.”

“My aunt couldn’t have heard what he said,” Graves recalled. “But she said, ‘I’m sure William’s mother is expecting him home for lunch.’ I knew something was strange.”

In 1957, while working in his family’s clothing store, Graves persuaded his father to promote a black stock clerk to a sales position so he wouldn’t leave for a better-paying job. The man became the first black clerk in a major Lexington store, and he was so good at it that commissions tripled his previous salary, Graves said.

Three years after, Graves was on the first Lexington Human Rights Commission, negotiating desegregation of the city’s movie theaters. On the day of the March on Frankfort, he was co-chair of Kentuckians for Public Accommodations.

For both Powers and Graves, the March on Frankfort was the beginning of political careers with an emphasis on civil rights.

In 1967, Powers became the first black and the first sixth woman elected to the Kentucky Senate. During 21 years in office, she sponsored much legislation furthering rights for minorities, women and children.

Powers helped lead civil rights marches in several Southern cities. She became a close confidante of King and was with him in Memphis in April 1968 when he was killed. In 1989, the autobiography of King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King also were lovers.

Graves would go on to be a Lexington councilman and work for the election of the city’s first black councilman, Harry Sykes. Graves served in both the state House and Senate in the 1970s.

“As I took that march,” Graves recalled of that day 50 years ago, “I kept thinking of all the people (King) helped and was trying to help.”

Toward the end of our conversation last week, Graves’ voice choked as he told me how he has written instructions for his funeral. He has asked for a mixed-race choir to sing at the service, he said, “and one of the hymns has to be, We Shall Overcome.”

 

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The march headliners were the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., center, and baseball great Jackie Robinson, left. Associated Press photo.

march5

King was the featured speaker on the cold, rainy day. Herald-Leader photo.

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Gov. Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt, right, met with, left to right, Frank Stanley Jr., Jackie Robinson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  Photo by Bob Daugherty/Associated Press

Click here to see a gallery with these and other photos from the 1964 march.

 

 


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.”