Amid slavery, some free blacks prospered in Antebellum Lexington

February 21, 2015

150220FreeBlacks0016Samuel Oldham, who bought his freedom and later that of his wife and children, build this house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. He owned barber shops and a spa. After years of neglect, the house was restored in 2007. Photos by Tom Eblen


Slaves were everywhere in Lexington before the Civil War: cooking in white people’s kitchens, cleaning their houses, washing and mending their clothes and working in their hemp fields and factories.

Slaves also were on the auction block and whipping post at Cheapside and in three downtown “jails” that became major way stations in the Southern slave trade.

But a lesser-known piece of Lexington history is that many free blacks lived side-by-side with slaves and masters. The 1850 census showed the city with 8,159 residents, including 2,309 slaves and 479 free people of color.

Many were skilled craftsmen who had been given their freedom, or found ways to earn enough money to buy it. Once free, they often worked years to buy the freedom of their wives, children and other relatives.

Some free blacks became so financially successful that they built or bought fine homes for themselves, acquired rental property and helped their church congregations grow and prosper.

“There weren’t separate enclaves then,” said Yvonne Giles, who has extensively researched black history in Lexington. “They lived among the white community.”

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

That wasn’t for lack of racism. White people tolerated and, to some degree, accepted these free black masons, blacksmiths, plasterers, carpenters, coopers, barbers and confectioners because they had to.

“In order for Lexington to prosper, they needed these skilled laborers,” Giles said. “If they hassled them, they would have left. They didn’t go because they felt protected.”

Giles has searched census documents, court records and old newspapers to document the lives of many free blacks in antebellum Lexington. Others who also have researched the topic include historians Marion Lucas, Alicestyne Turley and Rachel Kennedy.

Their work reveals interesting lives of accomplishment, and legacies that still endure. No photographs of them are known to exist, Giles said. But the houses built or owned by several successful free blacks in the South Hill neighborhood have been restored into valuable historic homes.

Perhaps the best known today is Samuel Oldham, who built a handsome house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. After years of neglect and the threat of demolition, it was restored in 2007.

Oldham was a barber who bought himself out of slavery in 1826, then earned enough to free his wife, Daphney, and their two sons. He operated barbershops and a spa, helped other blacks with legal issues and bought freedom for several slaves.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in the establishment of black schools.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister.

Daphney Oldham, a seamstress, and her house were the inspiration for playwright Ain Gordon’s 2008 one-woman play, In This Place.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper Street about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. Billy and Hannah Tucker, who owned a confectionery shop downtown, lived at 521 South Upper in the 1840s.

Blacksmith Rolla Blue and his wife, Rachel, lived in a South Limestone house that no longer exists. But they owned 346 South Upper and rented it. Upon his death in the 1840s, Blue left a considerable estate with instructions that it be used to buy freedom for enslaved relatives.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in black education.

Many of these men were important black community leaders and church trustees, in part because their freedom allowed them to borrow money and sign legal documents. They helped establish and grow some of Lexington’s most prominent black congregations, including First African Baptist, Historic Pleasant Green Baptist and Historic St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal.

Two well-known free black ministers were London Ferrill of First African Baptist Church and his successor, Frederick Braxton, who oversaw construction of the 1856 sanctuary that still stands at Short and Deweese streets. In the 1860s, Braxton helped start two other prominent Baptist churches, Main Street and Bracktown.

Still, Giles said, life could be precarious for free blacks in antebellum Lexington. They had to carry papers proving they were free. Even with papers, they lived in fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery and of offending the wrong people.

“Being a free black didn’t mean you were really free,” she said. “If they didn’t stay on the good side of white people who would support and protect them, they were lost.”

50 years later, Berea alumni say Selma march changed their lives

February 15, 2015

150215Berea-Selma0008Berea College student Mike Clark took these photos as one of 58 students and faculty to join the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march in 1965.  The students carried a banner and signs with the college’s mottos. At left of the banner is freshman Ann Grundy, shown below in detail and today with her husband, Chester Grundy. Photos by Mike Clark and Tom Eblen


When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put out a call in the spring of 1965 for people to come to Alabama and march for civil rights, college students across the country jumped at the chance. College presidents shuddered.

Alabama cops and racist thugs had beaten previous marchers, killing two. University administrators worried about the safety of students, the fears of parents and the anger of conservative donors and community members.

Officials at Berea College, the South’s oldest interracial school, had an additional complication as campus opinion split over the civil rights movement and its tactics.

“Berea’s motto is ‘God hath made of one blood all nations of men’,” recalled Ann Grundy, who was then a freshman and one of 35 blacks among Berea’s 1,400 students. “Why did they ever tell us that? It became our weapon. We hammered them across the head to let us go.”

Berea President Francis Hutchins refused to sanction the trip, even after students marched on his house. But his heart was with them.

“They realized that morally we were correct,” Grundy said. “They just had to find a way to do it.”

Clark031Hutchins quietly loaned them his car and helped rent a Greyhound bus so 58 students and teachers could join the triumphant final day of the march from Selma to Montgomery, which led to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The 50th anniversary is attracting a lot of attention this year, in part because of Ava DuVernay’s acclaimed film, Selma, a contender for the best-picture Oscar at the Academy Awards on Sunday.

A two-month commemoration began last week in Selma. Among the participants March 7-8 will be a busload of Berea students, faculty and alumni that will include Grundy and 10 others who made the first trip. Of the original 58, 43 are still alive.

This time, Berea’s participation is official, organized by Alicestyne Turley, an African and African American studies professor who directs the Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education.

Among other things, the group plans to attend festivities at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the first two of King’s three marches ended almost as soon as they began.

The first one, on March 7, 1965, became known as “Bloody Sunday” after police beat the peaceful marchers as they tried to cross the bridge. A second attempt two days later came to be called Turnaround Tuesday” because, when confronted by police, King led the marchers back to a church in Selma.

150202Grundys0005AKing then sought a federal court order to protect marchers on their journey to the state Capitol in Montgomery, as well as federal legislation protecting black people’s right to register and vote. On March 15, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked Congress for that legislation in a nationally televised speech.

The third and final march began March 21 under the protection of 4,000 federalized troops and law-enforcement officers. Limited by the court order to 300 marchers on narrow parts of the road to Montgomery, the protest swelled to more than 25,000 as they reached the Capitol on March 25.

The Berea group spent all night driving through Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama to join that final day of marching. They carefully planned their route to include rest and refueling stops at places where it would be safe for blacks and whites to be seen traveling together.

“There were many white people at Berea who stepped outside their comfort zone to help us,” Grundy said. “Without their support, it would not have happened.”

She remembers an electric atmosphere, with students singing civil rights songs and talking about issues all night.

“On the bus we talked a lot about why we were doing it,” she said. “I remember being nervous, but when you’re 18 years old, what do you know about fear?”

Grundy led much of the singing. A piano major, her father had been pastor of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church, where, three years after his death, Klansmen placed a bomb that killed four girls attending Sunday school on Sept. 15, 1963.

When they arrived at a Catholic school complex outside Montgomery where thousands were waiting to join the marchers coming from Selma, the Bereans organized behind a banner painted with their school’s motto. They carried signs with another school motto, in Latin, which means “victory through suffering.”

“I felt sort of a oneness with all of the people there from all over the United States,” said John Fleming, another black Berea student who had participated in lunch counter sit-ins as a teenager in Morganton, N.C.

Fleming’s most vivid memories from that day are of watching people on the sidewalks as the march passed through Montgomery — the icy stares and slurs of whites and the joyful faces and cheers of blacks who had been warned not to join the protest.

“I wondered what they were all thinking,” he said. “And I realized that the only way change is going to happen is for individuals to make a decision that they are going to take a stand.”

150215Berea-Selma0002Berea student Mike Clark watched much of the day through the viewfinder of the school newspaper’s camera. He was the sports editor, but he learned to use the camera when the newspaper’s conservative photographer refused to make the trip.

“What I was looking at was pretty dramatic; all I needed to do was focus,” said Clark, who recently sent some of those old pictures to Berea.

Clark was a white boy from the North Carolina mountains. The first black people he ever met were chain-gang convicts who worked on the road outside his house. As a teenage restaurant cook, he worked for a black man he respected. Clark’s mother was a Christian who taught him that everyone deserved equal treatment.

He remembers running ahead of the march to take photographs as it approached the Capitol. There he encountered King and his lieutenants standing by the flatbed truck that would serve as the speakers’ platform for their rally.

“There was no security, so I just went up and chatted with them,” Clark recalled. “We were all just looking out at the crowd that stretched out in front of us for blocks. It was an inspiring moment. He had been a hero of mine for quite awhile, so to meet him personally was pretty cool.”

At the march’s dramatic conclusion, King and others spoke and Harry Belafonte and Peter, Paul and Mary sang. A line of police with billy clubs watched them from the Capitol steps.

“I can remember looking up at the state Capitol,” Grundy said, “and seeing (Gov.) George Wallace pulling back the curtain to peek and see what was going on.”

But Grundy’s most vivid memory was of a rest stop in Collinsville, Ala., on the way back that night. Zodia Belle Johnson Vaughn, the mother of black Berea freshman Robert Johnson, opened her home to the students and fed them delicious fried chicken, biscuits and collard greens.

“You know how they talk about Jesus and the miracle of the loaves and fishes? Well, he didn’t have anything on Mrs. Vaughan and her friends and neighbors,” Grundy said. “That to me was the highlight of the trip, because it demonstrated the many ways that people can support a struggle.”

After their return to campus, black students felt especially energized, and they focused that energy on Berea College.

Abolitionist John G. Fee founded the school in 1855 to educate freed blacks in an atmosphere of equality among the races and sexes. But in 1904, Kentucky legislators outlawed interracial education, and Berea refocused its mission on educating Appalachian white students of modest means.

Black students were once again admitted after the segregation law was repealed in 1950, but there were few of them — and no black faculty.

“Coming back from that trip we were definitely fired up,” Grundy said. “We really kicked in with the organization of the Black Student Union and started pressing Berea for black faculty, black staff, more students, more black course work.

Today, Berea’s student body of nearly 1,600 is 19 percent black, 4 percent Latino, 4 percent other minorities and 10 percent international. But the faculty remains 86 percent white — a sore point with some black alumni.

The Selma-to-Montgomery marches marked an historic watershed for the nation, and it shaped many of those Berea students for the rest of their lives.

“It perhaps set the tone for what I was going to do in the future, said Fleming, who would earn a doctorate at Howard University and become the founding director of the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center and director of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

Clark became a journalist, working for fearless publishers Tom and Pat Gish at the Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg. But he soon left journalism for a career in social justice and environmental activism, leading such organizations as Greenpeace and Tennessee’s legendary Highlander Research and Education Center.

Grundy and her husband, Chester, became lifelong civil rights activists who for more than four decades have organized the annual Martin Luther King Day festivities in Lexington that have included such speakers as Muhammad Ali, Maya Angelou and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

“I think most of us look back on the march with a great deal of honor and pride,” Grundy said. “I could almost feel myself growing up. I sometimes say I never got over it.”


Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


Alice Dunnigan’s amazing story, from Ky. segregation to Capitol Hill

February 7, 2015

150208Dunnigan002President John F. Kennedy reaches down to speak with Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist.   Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker


Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up on a red-clay hill in Logan County, the daughter of a poor sharecropper and a washerwoman.

She, too, would wash clothes and clean houses for white people before working her way through Kentucky State University to realize her first big dream, becoming a school teacher.

But Dunnigan is remembered today for climbing another hill — Capitol Hill — where in the late 1940s she became the first black woman journalist accredited to Congress, the White House and other major assignments in Washington, D.C.

Dunnigan died in 1983 at age 77, but Carol McCabe Booker, a former journalist and lawyer, remembers meeting her once at a party. Dunnigan was a friend of Booker’s husband, Simeon, 96, another pioneering black journalist.

But it wasn’t until two years ago, when the National Association of Black Journalists inducted both Dunnigan and Simeon Booker into its hall of fame, that Booker learned more about this woman’s amazing life story.

She tracked down a rare copy of Dunnigan’s 1974 self-published autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. It inspired her to edit a new edition of the book, which the University of Georgia Press will publish Feb. 15 as Alone atop the Hill ($26.95).

150208Dunnigan003Booker will be in Kentucky next week to talk about Dunnigan and sign books. She speaks Feb. 17 at the Kentucky Historical Society‘s monthly Food for Thought lunch in Frankfort ($25, or $20 for members; reservations due Feb. 13. Call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414, or email

The next day, Booker speaks to KSU students. And on Feb. 19, she goes to Dunnigan’s hometown for a free, public event at 2 p.m. in Russellville’s African American Heritage Center, 252 South Morgan Street, sponsored by the Kentucky Human Rights Commission.

Dunnigan tells her compelling story in the clear, direct style that made her an influential voice in black newspapers nationwide when she was Washington bureau chief for the Associated Negro Press news service.

“I thought she deserved the right to tell her story in her own words, in her own voice,” Booker said when we talked by phone last week. “I wanted Alice to have a chance in this new era.”

Dunnigan’s writing needed little editing, Booker said. But she did make one big change: she cut the 670-page autobiography by more than half, leaving out the last chapters that covered her years in government service after she left her poverty-wage journalism job in 1960. The final chapters were not nearly as interesting as the rest of the story, Booker said.

The new book is a fascinating read, filled with anecdotes that show how pervasive discrimination limited possibilities for both blacks and women at the time. Dunnigan always thought her gender was as much of a hindrance as her race.

“That’s why I think the story has wide appeal,” Booker said. “A young woman of any race reading that story can glean some inspiration from it.”

Dunnigan’s motto was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” She decided at age 13 to become both a teacher and a journalist to “tell people how to improve their lives.” But her parents and husbands from two failed marriages offered little encouragement.

Even after Dunnigan “made it” in Washington, she was barred from some venues, or had to sit with servants at events instead of with other reporters. She endured openly racist congressmen and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to answer her tough news conference questions about discrimination and civil rights.

Dunnigan, the first black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club, got access to power because she demanded it. She won respect and dozens of journalism awards for her accuracy, fairness and persistence.

But she never made much money in journalism. Dunnigan often had to pay her own travel expenses to cover stories, and she writes of pawning her watch each Saturday so she would have enough money to eat until her paycheck arrived on Monday.

A year before her death, Dunnigan published her second book, The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition. It is a collection of sketches she wrote in the 1930s to inspire students in the segregated schools where she taught.

“You could say that Alice had one fantastic career as a communicator in three venues — teaching, journalism and government,” Booker said. “It was being a teacher on a broader level.”

150208Dunnigan001Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist, greets A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former Kentucky governor, senator and U.S. baseball commissioner.  Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker

Black History Month founder was also an Appalachian coal miner

February 3, 2015

For several years, I have written a series of columns each February about little-known aspects of the history of Kentucky citizens of African descent.

So it seemed fitting to begin this year’s series with a look at the man who created Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson. A prolific author, historian and activist, he was the key figure in the recognition of black history as an academic specialty.

150204Woodson0002But before all of that, Woodson grew up in Appalachia, worked as a coal miner and began his academic career as a student at Berea College.

Many people don’t know about Woodson’s Appalachian roots, said Alicestyne Turley, director of Berea’s Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education and an assistant professor of African and African American Studies.

“In fact, I never knew he had been a student at Berea until I came here,” she said. “It just never came up on the radar.”

Woodson was born in 1875 near New Canton, Va., the oldest of nine children of former slaves. After the Civil War, his parents moved to West Virginia when they heard Huntington was building a high school for blacks.

Woodson studied on his own while working as a coal miner. He wasn’t able to enter that high school until he was 20, but it took him only two years to earn a diploma.

“He had everything you would normally think of in an Appalachian background — except that he was black,” Turley said.

“Honestly, historians have not done a lot of work on his early life,” she added. “I wonder: what was he doing then besides working in the coal mines?”

After high school, Woodson began teaching in Winona, W.Va., at a school that black coal miners started for their children. But he wanted more education, and Berea College seemed a logical choice.

Berea was founded in 1855 by abolitionist John G. Fee on land given him by Cassius Clay of Lexington, an outspoken emancipationist newspaper publisher. It became the first non-segregated, co-educational school in the South.

Woodson commuted from West Virginia by train and only studied part-time. Still, he managed to earn a bachelor’s of literature degree in 1903. His timing could not have been better.

150204Woodson0001The next year, Kentucky’s General Assembly passed the Day Law, which prohibited blacks and whites from attending school together. That law wasn’t repealed until 1950, and during the decades in between, Berea shifted its focus to white Appalachian students of modest means.

Woodson went on to earn another bachelor’s and a master’s degree in European History from the University of Chicago, and he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1912, he became the second black person, after W.E.B. Du Boise, to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.

Frustrated that white scholars were either ignoring or misrepresenting the history of his people, Woodson started what is now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which celebrates its centennial this year.

The association sponsored conferences, primarily to teachers of black children. Woodson edited the association’s Journal of Negro History until he died in 1950.

Woodson founded Associated Publishers in 1920, which was the nation’s oldest black-owned book publisher when it was dissolved in 2005.

In 1926, Woodson launched Negro History Week, sandwiched between the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass on Feb. 12 and Feb. 20.

“He had to fight to get that week,” Turley said. But the concept gained acceptance and spread, eventually becoming Black History Month.

Woodson, who spent most of his academic career at Howard University in Washington, D.C., also became a political activist and a regular columnist for Marcus Garvey’s weekly newspaper, Negro World.

He wrote more than two dozen influential articles and books, the most famous of which was “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” published in 1933.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” one of the book’s frequently quoted passages says. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

After Woodson left Berea, he continued a correspondence with the college’s president, William Frost. Turley said those letters are revealing.

“He often talks about what he learned at Berea,” she said. “He understood Berea’s commitments of learning, labor and service. Those were things that stayed with him the rest of his life.”

Author of new William Wells Brown biography speaks in Lexington

September 16, 2014

William Wells Brown is a name few people recognize today. He may be best known in Lexington as the namesake of an elementary school and community center in the East End.

But Brown (1814-1884) became a celebrity in the 19th century as the first black American to publish a novel, a travelogue, a song book and a play. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first about black military service in the Civil War.

The Central Kentucky native, who spent much of his adult life as a fugitive slave, spoke widely in this country and Europe against slavery. After emancipation, he was an important voice for black self-improvement. He also became a physician.

But that summary of accomplishments gives no clue about the fact that Brown’s own life story was as complex and fascinating as any work of literature.

wwbEzra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University who has edited two collections of Brown’s writing, next month will publish a groundbreaking biography of America’s first black literary giant, William Wells Brown: An African American Life (W.W. Norton & Co., $35).

As part of a national tour celebrating the bicentennial of Brown’s birth, Greenspan is in Lexington this week to talk about his biography, which sheds new light on a man whose life and work were often surrounded by mystery and controversy. Greenspan plans to speak to students at four Lexington schools, and he has two free public events Thursday: a 4 p.m. talk at Third Street Stuff coffee shop and a more extensive presentation at 6:30 p.m. at the Lyric Theatre.

I had been eager to read Greenspan’s book since last year, when I interviewed him for a Black History Month column about Brown. I recently got a draft and found it to be an engaging, well-written story, filled with new information from years of painstaking research.

Greenspan’s work was difficult because Brown left no personal papers — perhaps because of scandals involving his first wife and a daughter — and the fact that he often mixed fact with fiction when writing about himself. Because Brown was born a slave, early records are sparse.

Greenspan first came to Lexington in 2009, when he and his wife were traveling around the United States and Britain to places where Brown spent time. They came here because Brown’s first published work — a narrative about his life in slavery — began: “I was born in Lexington, Kentucky.”

Brown may have thought that, because he was taken from Kentucky when he was only 3. But Greenspan discovered that Brown was actually born in Montgomery County, the child of a black slave and his owner’s white cousin, George W. Higgins. Called “Sandy” as a youth, Brown later adapted his chosen name from that of a subsequent owner.

Greenspan’s book traces Brown’s life from Kentucky to Missouri, where he lived on a farm next to Daniel Boone, to his work on Mississippi River steamboats for various masters, including a notorious slave-trader. All this time, Brown was observing much that would eventually find its way into print.

Brown’s third and successful escape from slavery came in 1834, when he was 19, after he saw both his mother and sister “sold down the river.”

His accomplishments were remarkable on many counts. He taught himself to read as an adult. With no formal education, he became a stylish, sophisticated and unusually prolific writer and a speaker of such skill that he attracted huge audiences.

Brown also was a resourceful entrepreneur. He profitably managed most of his own publishing, and he fiercely guarded his creative and financial independence despite persistent racism.

As Greenspan’s book recounts, Brown took considerable literary license with facts and indulged in bold examples of using others’ material in his own work. As both an activist and writer, he was fearless.

Brown’s most famous book was the novel Clotel, or, The President’s Daughter: A Narrative of Slave Life in the United States, first published in London in 1853. It boldly cast its title character as the daughter of Thomas Jefferson, whose relationship with his slave Sally Hemings had long been the subject of gossip.

Clotel was heavily influenced by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was then an international sensation. Brown was always savvy about writing and rewriting his work to sell. But Stowe’s novel, which also was deeply rooted in Kentucky, had a profound impact on Brown.

“It was basically a retelling of his own life story,” Greenspan said. “It hit home in a very powerful way.”


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.



Lexington Colored Fair was once a top national event

February 23, 2014

A photo of the 1920 Colored Fair was found by Lonnie Winn of Lexington among family items. File Photo. Below, program from the 1882 fair. Courtesy Kentucky Historical Society.


Three and a half years after Kentucky abolished slavery, a group of black Lexington men led by Henry King decided they wanted to showcase the progress their race was making with freedom.

They called a mass meeting for Aug. 11, 1869, and organized the Agricultural and Mechanical Association of Colored People. Selling 50 shares of stock for $10 each, they raised enough money to organize the first Lexington Colored Fair.

Fairs and expositions were popular events after the Civil War, providing entertainment, sport, socializing and a showcase for people’s agricultural, mechanical and artistic accomplishments. But in the South, blacks were often excluded.

“So they decided to have their own fair,” said Yvonne Giles, an authority on Lexington black history who runs the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum at the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center, 644 Georgetown Street.

Because the Lexington Colored Fair ended during World War II, many people have forgotten about it. But Giles’ research has discovered that it was one of the nation’s largest and most successful black fairs, attracting as many as 40,000 people each year.

140219ColoredFair1The first fair was held Oct. 6-9, 1869, in “Mrs. Graves’ Woods” — 25 acres of rented farmland between Newtown and Georgetown roads. The association’s charter specified that no drinking or gambling was allowed at the fair.

Fair organizers tried to lease the Kentucky Association racetrack for the same price as the annual white fair paid, but the track’s board refused. Lexington’s white newspapers were initially dismissive of the fair, opining that blacks had little time or money for such frivolity.

“We hope for the sake of all concerned that sobriety and good order will prevail,” the Lexington Observer & Reporter wrote. But when the fair ended, the newspaper reluctantly acknowledged its success: “Everything went on peaceably and pleasantly.”

The first fair made a profit of $1,368 — big money in that era — and each year’s event got bigger and better. By 1872, the fair had expanded from four to five days and added horse racing.

The association took a 15-year lease on a larger parcel on Georgetown Road, now a commercial neighborhood near Oakwood subdivision. A state historical marker commemorates the spot.

The association built an exhibit hall, a 2,500-seat amphitheater, stables and a half-mile racetrack. But the fair quickly outgrew that site, too, as railroads offered special fares to Lexington for fairgoers throughout Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana.

The association negotiated a lease with Lexington’s white fairgrounds, now the site of The Red Mile trotting track and Floral Hall. These fairgrounds had an 8,000-seat grandstand and were served by streetcar lines. Beginning in 1887, this would be the Lexington Colored Fair’s permanent home.

The fair flourished in part because it paid generous prizes for exhibit entries, and big purses for Thoroughbred and trotting races, Giles said.

By the early 1900s, the big race was the mile and one-sixteenth Colored Fair Derby, which attracted top trainers and jockeys. The winner received $400 and a silver trophy. The association became the first black organization admitted to membership in the National Trotting Association, that sport’s governing body.

Good prizes attracted top competitors, and the Colored Fair didn’t discriminate.

“Often the exhibits of the best white people compete for the prizes,” W.D. Johnson wrote in his 1897 book, Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women of Kentucky.

When its charter expired in 1896, the association reorganized to allow the original stockholders or their widows to cash out shares at more than 10 times their purchase price. The reorganization also attracted a new generation of black men and women to invest their money and energies in the fair.

“The display booths, livestock shows, prizes and sporting events served to demonstrate black achievement, thereby enhancing racial pride,” Marion Lucas wrote in his 1992 book, A History of Blacks in Kentucky.

Adults competed for prizes in livestock, fruits, vegetables, wines, honeys, hams, workmanship and manufacturing skills. For women, there were contests for sewing, baking, canning, floral displays and needlework. There were three educational categories for children: essays, penmanship and painting.

Over the years, the fair offered airplane rides, balloon ascensions, military bands, beauty contests, bicycle races, trained dog acts and daredevil shows, such as one in 1907 called the Double Death Gap Flumes and Loop.

In 1910, the black historian and activist W.E.B. DuBois wrote that the Lexington event was “one of the most successful colored fairs in the United States.”

The fair attracted black celebrities, including heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson and Oscar DePriest of Chicago, the only black member of Congress when he attended in 1929.

The biggest star of all was educator Booker T. Washington, who attracted a record crowd and front-page coverage in the white-owned Lexington Leader when he spoke at the fair in 1908.

The fair was called off as World War I was ending in 1918, because soldiers were being housed in Floral Hall. It reopened the next year, adding a sixth day of events.

With the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, the fair suffered financial losses and was called off from 1931-1934. The fair reopened in 1935, but closed for good after 1942. World War II was absorbing the nation’s resources and attention, and it would begin the slow process of racial integration.


A state historical marker along Georgetown Road recalls the second location of the Lexington Colored Fair. Photo by Tom Eblen

Freed slave left his mark on Lexington; his son went even further

February 15, 2014

140212Tandys0002Henry Tandy and Albert Byrd, two black bricklayers in Lexington during the late 1800s and early 1900s, formed a partnership that did the brick work on many notable local buildings. Tandy & Byrd’s biggest job was the Fayette County Courthouse. Photos by Tom Eblen



Henry A. Tandy was one of many newly freed slaves who moved to Lexington at the end of the Civil War. He would leave marks on this city that are still visible, and his son would do the same in New York.

Tandy was born in Kentucky, but it isn’t known exactly when or where. He came to Lexington in 1865 at about age 15 and made a name for himself as a craftsman, business executive and entrepreneur.

After two years as a photographer’s assistant, Tandy went to work in 1867 as a laborer for G.D. Wilgus, one of Lexington’s largest building contractors. Within a few years he was a skilled bricklayer and a foreman, according to architectural historian Rebecca Lawin McCarley, who researched his life and wrote about it in 2006 for the journal Kentucky Places & Spaces.


Henry A. Tandy

Tandy saved money and, after marrying Emma Brice in 1874, bought his first real estate from George Kinkead, an anti-slavery lawyer whose mansion is now the Living Arts & Science Center. Tandy built the only two-story brick house in Kinkeadtown, a black settlement now part of the East End.

By the time their son, Vertner, was born in 1885, the Tandys had sold their home in Kinkeadtown for a profit and moved in with her parents at 642 West Main Street. Tandy is thought to have built the brick house there, and he lived in it for the rest of his life.

In the 1880s, Tandy began buying investment lots around town. He built and rented some of the best houses in Lexington’s “black” neighborhoods at the time.

Among the Wilgus projects that Tandy worked on were the Opera House, St. Paul Catholic Church and First Presbyterian Church. When Wilgus’ health deteriorated in the 1880s, Tandy took over many of his duties. It was then unheard of for a black man to run a white man’s business.

When Wilgus died in 1893, Tandy and another black bricklayer, Albert Byrd, formed their own company, Tandy & Byrd. It became one of Lexington’s largest brick contractors, with as many as 50 workers.

Tandy & Byrd’s biggest project was the old Fayette County Court House. Others that remain standing include the First National Bank building on Short Street, Miller Hall at the University of Kentucky and the Merrick Lodge Building, where The Jax restaurant is now at Short and Limestone streets.

Tandy & Byrd also built the annex for the Protestant Infirmary at East Short Street and Elm Tree Lane. The infirmary was the forerunner of Good Samaritan Hospital. Until recently, the annex housed Hurst Office Furniture.

Tandy & Byrd constructed the Ades Dry Goods building on East Main Street, which now houses Thomas & King’s offices and Portofino restaurant. The partners did a lot of brick work for Combs Lumber Co., which built many turn-of-the-century Lexington homes (including mine).

Tandy was one of 49 people profiled in W.D. Johnson’s 1897 book, Biographical Sketches of Prominent Negro Men and Women of Kentucky.

“Opportunity came to him, and he seized it,” Johnson wrote of Tandy. “Through his indefatigable efforts a large force of Negro laborers have found steady employment, and thereby obtained comfortable homes for their families.”

Tandy was prominent in the black community, with leadership roles in the “colored” YMCA, the A.M.E. Church, black fraternal organizations and the Colored Fair Association, which organized Kentucky’s largest annual exposition for blacks. He was active in the National Negro Business League and spoke at its national convention in 1902.

Byrd died in 1909, and Tandy retired in 1911 after finishing Roark and Sullivan halls at Eastern Kentucky University. But he continued dabbling in real estate and got into the livery and undertaking business. Tandy died in 1918, and he has one of the biggest monuments at Cove Haven Cemetery.

Although Tandy got little formal education, he made sure his son did.

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy

Vertner Woodson Tandy studied under Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He finished his studies at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., where he was one of seven founders of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first black college fraternity. He was the first black to pass the military commissioning exam, and he eventually became a major in the New York National Guard.

Tandy would become New York’s first black registered architect, and the first black member of the American Institute of Architects. Among many buildings he designed was St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Harlem and two mansions for America’s first black woman millionaire, the hair-care products pioneer Madam C.J. Walker.

The Villa Lewaro mansion Tandy designed for Walker in exclusive Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., was restored in the 1990s by Harold Doley, the first black to buy an individual seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

Tandy designed one building in Lexington that still stands: Webster Hall, which housed teachers at Chandler Normal School for blacks on Georgetown Street, which he had attended.

Vertner Tandy died in 1949 at age 64. A state historical marker honoring him stands beside the family home on West Main Street, which is now used for offices.

Click on each image to see larger photo and read caption:


As first black senator, Powers gave voice to the powerless

February 9, 2014

powers2Georgia Powers posed last month in the study of her Louisville apartment, whose walls are covered with honors amd mementoes. Photo by Tom Eblen. Below, an undated photo of Powers in the state Senate. Photo by Keith Williams/The Courier-Journal.


LOUISVILLE — She had worked on two statewide political campaigns and helped organize a civil rights march that brought 10,000 people to Frankfort.

But Georgia Montgomery Davis Powers said she never thought of running for public office herself until she was working a part-time clerk’s job in 1966, processing paperwork in the state House of Representatives.

As she passed around copies of a proposed law that would ban discrimination against blacks in employment and public accommodations, she recalled recently, a newly elected representative from Western Kentucky voiced his views.

“I see no reason to change things from the way they are,” he announced. “If I voted for that, I would never get re-elected.”

Powers was furious. A few minutes later, she said she found the courage to tell him: “You know, Representative, what I need is my own seat here.”

Less than two years later, she would have one. Powers became the first black elected to the state Senate, and the first woman elected without succeeding a husband who had been a senator.

Powers is 90 years old now, still healthy, active and engaged. Her high-rise apartment has a commanding view of the downtown Louisville district she represented for 21 years as a tireless advocate for Kentucky’s underdogs: minorities, women, children and poor, elderly and disabled people.

“When you are placed in a powerful position, whatever it is, you should do everything you can do for people who have no voice and need an advocate,” she said when I visited her recently.

Powers also helped lead civil rights marches across the South, becoming a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1989, the year after she retired from the Senate, a book by King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King had also been lovers. Her secret exposed, Powers told her version of the story in a 1995 autobiography, I Shared The Dream.

“Things happen like that,” she said when I asked her about her relationship with King. “You’re working together and you admire them and they like you and things happen. That’s life.”

powers1Powers’ life has been both accomplished and unlikely. She was born to a poor couple in a two-room shack near Springfield. When a tornado destroyed the shack, her family moved to Louisville, where her half-white father got a factory job, enameling bathtubs.

As an only girl with eight brothers, she quickly learned to be tough. “Just because I was their sister did not mean that they tried to spoil me in any way,” she said. “Just the opposite.”

Powers left home at 18 to follow the first of many men in her life, which would include three husbands. She lived in New York and California, and her many jobs included building C-46 cargo planes during World War II as a “Rosie the riveter”.

She didn’t get involved in politics until 1962, when a church friend pestered her to work for former Louisville Mayor Wilson Wyatt’s unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. Senate. She ended up organizing his volunteers statewide, and was hired for similar duties in Edward T. Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor the next year.

Powers realized she was the “token black” in Wyatt’s campaign, and at times she had to demand equal pay and treatment with other staffers. After Breathitt’s victory, other staff members were given jobs in Frankfort, but not Powers. The next year, Breathitt probably wished he had offered her one.

Powers was one of the main organizers of the March on Frankfort, which brought King, baseball great Jackie Robinson and folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary to the Capitol steps with 10,000 others to demand passage of a bill banning discrimination against blacks in hotels, restaurants and other public accommodations.

Breathitt was a no-show, so after the march Powers brought King and Robinson to his office and asked for a meeting. The governor was non-committal, and the bill failed. But it passed in the next session two years later with his support.

By the 1968 session, Powers was in the Senate, and she wasted no time introducing civil rights legislation. She said it was an uphill battle, but she was eventually successful because her Democratic Party was then in the majority, she was able to get along with other lawmakers and she became good at legislative horse-trading.

“I never got angry with anybody if they didn’t vote for something I had up,” she said. “I figured I would need them for something else someday.”

Powers also knew how to stand her ground. “I never had any fear,” she said. “I figured all they could do was shoot me. I had been marching down in Alabama and everywhere else and never got shot.”

At the end of her first, tough legislative session, King asked her to come to Memphis, where he was trying to win better pay and working conditions for striking black sanitation workers. When he was assassinated, she heard the fatal shot and was among the first to find his body.

She said King had initiated their relationship with the help of his brother, A.D. King, who was then a minister in Louisville. Although both were married to others, she said they met several times and she always feared their secret would get out.

Once it did, so many years later, the revelation angered some people in the black community, especially after she elaborated in her own book. A couple of Louisville ministers gave her a hard time, but she says it didn’t bother her.

“They thought somebody was going to tell on them!” she said with a laugh. “And the women just said, ‘I wish it had been me!'” More laughter.

Despite that bit of scandal, Powers thinks she will be remembered more for her legislative contributions, making life better for Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens. That work earned her walls full of awards, including honorary degrees from four Kentucky universities.

“Kentucky has been good to me,” she said. “I did what I was supposed to do in life.”

One entrepreneur hopes to educate, another to be educated

April 1, 2013


Rosetta Lucas Quisenberry just published her fifth black history book. Photo by Tom Eblen


Not all entrepreneurs are in it for the money. As two very different entrepreneurs from Lexington show, business can be a good way to achieve personal and social goals as well as financial ones.

Rosetta Lucas Quisenberry, a retired Fayette County Public Schools teacher, just published the fifth book in her Black Saga series: Things, People and Places We Must Always Remember.

Like her first four books, this one has a fascinating collection of images of racist postcards, advertisements, coin banks and other ephemera from the 1890s to the 1940s, followed by images from that period that show a more positive reality of black Americans.

Quisenberry was a 24-year-old graduate student at the University of Kentucky in 1975 when she went to Turfland Mall to look at a visiting antique show. She noticed a couple of white women giggling at old postcards.

After they moved on, she walked over to see what was so funny. What she found shocked her: depictions of black people eating watermelon, picking cotton, posing as “alligator bait” and otherwise being made objects of ridicule.

“Nobody had ever told me this material even existed,” she said, adding that she bought every one of the postcards “to take them off the market. I was ashamed of it.”

Collecting such artifacts became an obsession with Quisenberry, who went to antique shows all over the country and accumulated more than 1,000 of them.

After a few years, though, she realized that rather than being hidden and forgotten, these racist relics should be seen and remembered. Only then, she thought, would black and white people understand the depth of past racism and how it continues to affect society in subtle ways.

130401Eblen-Book001Quisenberry photographed a sampling of her collection of negative and positive images and published her first book, A Saga of the Black Man, in 2003. Over the years, she came out with three more similar books, focusing on black women, children and families. The new book ties them all together.

The former teacher would like to see her books used in public school history classes, but she doubts it will happen.

Modern parents might be offended by what were once commonplace examples of racist humor, she said, and school systems themselves were once complicit. For example, the new book’s images include the program from a black-face “minstrel show” put on by students of Lexington’s all-white Picadome Elementary in 1947.

Quisenberry’s books cost $15 each and are available in many Central Kentucky bookstores or directly from her: (859) 299-7258.

Kids for Kids

Logan Gardner, a senior at Henry Clay High School’s Liberal Arts Academy, has known since he was little that he wanted to go into business. He figured one good way to learn about business would be to start one.

130401Eblen-LoganGardner realized that few adults might be willing to do business with a kid. But he saw an opportunity in the charity projects many of his friends were involved with. He created Kids for Kids Youth Social Ventures, a nonprofit organization that would teach him business skills and help his friends jump-start their fundraising efforts.

“Running a charity is similar to running a business,” he said. “It’s a lot of the same skills.”

Gardner, 18, wrote a business plan, filled out the voluminous paperwork to seek nonprofit tax status, created a website ( and set up a presence on social media. Then he partnered with the crowd-funding site

Gardner got mentoring along the way from his father, John Gardner, a financial advisor for Wells Fargo Advisors, and Erin Budde, who leads Wells Fargo’s national charity efforts and will soon become executive director of stl250, the group planning St. Louis’ 250th anniversary celebration in 2014.

Kids for Kids’ first project raised $2,000 to help Ellen Hardcastle, 17, a family friend in Nashville, produce a CD of her piano solos. The CDs will be sold to raise almost $5,800 to build a new well for Ulongwe Model School in Malawi.

Kids for Kids’ current project on is halfway toward its goal of raising $900 by April 17 for Lusi Lukova, a Henry Clay junior, to help the Lexington-based International Book Project ship textbooks to schools in Uganda.

Gardner soon will be turning over Kids for Kids to his brother, Austin, 17, as he heads this fall to the University of Pennsylvania, where he has been accepted into the prestigious Wharton School of Business. Did starting Kids for Kids give him an edge?

“Absolutely,” Gardner said. “I think that’s what got me into Penn.”

Black History Month: St. Martin’s Village was a first for Lexington

February 26, 2013


Darryl and Linda Bond live in the house in St. Martin’s Village where he grew up. His father and uncle did much of the concrete work  for the neighborhood. Photo by Tom Eblen


It looks like many Lexington subdivisions built in the 1950s and ’60s — rows of modest brick and stone houses with well-tended yards.

But St. Martin’s Village took the American dream to a whole new level in Lexington: It was the first large subdivision where black people could buy a home.

“They were the crème de la crème for African-Americans in the 1950s,” said Porter G. Peeples, longtime president of the Urban League. “You were somebody if you got a place in St. Martin’s.”

It had always been hard for black people to find good housing in segregated Lexington. Few banks would lend in traditionally black parts of town. White neighborhoods were off-limits, by strict social custom, if not legal covenant.

For example, a 1907 marketing booklet for the new Mentelle Park development off Richmond Road promised: “No Negroes can ever own property or live in the park. No adjacent or near-by Negro settlements.”

When rumors circulated in 1925 that black-owned land off North Limestone would be developed into a subdivision for blacks, more than 200 white citizens gathered in a nearby church and organized a successful effort to block it.

But after World War II, Lexington’s business leaders realized their little college and farming town needed to attract industry if it was to have a strong economy and viable middle class. Factories hired a diverse work force. Things had to change.

Ovan Haskins, an insurance executive who helped start the Lexington Hustlers semi-pro baseball team, realized a long-held dream in 1948 when he bought land off Newtown Pike and began building 26 homes for sale to blacks on what is now Haskins Street.

But the big break came in 1955, when Joe Fister teamed with Chuck Seeberger and Joe Tuttle to build a 200-lot subdivision for blacks on 40 acres of farmland Fister owned on Price Road off Georgetown Road.

St. Martin’s Village was named for St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639), a mixed-race monk in Peru who is the patron saint for those seeking interracial harmony. The main street was called De Porres Avenue.

“This will be as good as any subdivision in Lexington,” Seeberger said in a 1955 Lexington Herald article that carried the headline, “First Negro Subdivision Planned on Fister Tract.”

SMV3Seeberger, president of the development company, was a Kansas native who had lived in Los Angeles before moving to Lexington, where his father-in-law owned an insurance business. He wanted to become a developer, building homes for people who had never been able to afford one, and he recognized an unmet need.

“People from the white community said, ‘You don’t need to be doing this — the status quo is just fine’,” said his son, Kirk Seeberger. “It upset him, but he expected it.”

Seeberger recalled his father, who died in 2003, describing how some St. Martin’s Village homeowners would weep at their closings.

“They said they never thought they would ever own a nice house in Lexington, Kentucky,” he said.

Many of those black homeowners were professional people — and, eventually, city leaders. The late Harry Sykes, who became city manager and mayor pro-tem, lived in St. Martin’s Village, as does former Councilman Robert Jefferson.

Two brothers, Alvin and Bennie Bond, did much of the concrete work on houses in the subdivision. That included “sweat equity” to help them buy their own homes across the street from each other on De Porres Avenue.

“I was born and raised in this house,” said Darryl Bond, 48, one of Alvin’s children. He and his wife, Linda, raised three children there and now operate a licensed child care center in the house. Like his father, Darryl Bond also does concrete work.

Bond’s lifelong tenure in St. Martin’s Village isn’t unusual: he guesses that 80 percent of the homes are occupied by original owners or their descendants.

“It’s a nice neighborhood,” Bond said. “Everybody knows everybody. Everybody pretty much looks out for everybody else. If kids are misbehaving, somebody will correct them.”

Michelle Davis, 55, who also lives in the De Porres Avenue house where she grew up, agreed.

“It’s a family-oriented neighborhood; almost like a big extended family,” she said. “We all grew up together. We were always in each other’s houses. We even got to know each other’s relatives from out of town when they would visit. It’s home.”


Joseph Fister breaks ground for St. Martin’s Village in April 1955. Watching, left to right, are J.J. Tuttle, Tom Robinson, Chuck Seeberger, Don Saylor and G.W. Gard. Herald-Leader file photo.

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.


The amazing life of Lexington slave Lewis Hayden. (Part 1)

February 6, 2013

When the Marquis de Lafayette visited Lexington in May 1825, during his celebrated national tour, a slave child of 13 slipped away from his chores long enough to try to catch a glimpse of the French hero of the American Revolution.

Lewis Hayden would later recall sitting alone on a fence as the parade passed through town. As Lafayette’s open carriage approached, the most famous man Hayden had ever heard of turned and bowed his head to acknowledge him.

“That act burnt his image upon my heart so that I shall never need a permit to recall it,” Hayden would later tell friends. “I date my hatred of slavery from that day.”

One of the things I love about reading history, especially black history, is discovering fascinating people of great accomplishment I previously knew nothing about.

I had never heard of Hayden until last year, when William Thomas gave me an old library copy of Joel Strangis’ 1999 book, Lewis Hayden and the War Against Slavery. That led me to other sources that also told the story of a Lexington man who escaped slavery, settled in Boston and led a remarkable life.

Thomas, a Lexington retiree, is the leader of a nonprofit foundation trying to raise money to buy and preserve the old First African Baptist Church building at Short and Deweese streets. Thomas dreams of turning this handsome old church, built around 1856 by a slave congregation, into a performance hall and arts academy.

Like Hayden, Thomas found success in Boston. After graduating from Lexington’s then-segregated schools, Thomas became an accomplished musician, built an outstanding orchestra during a 36-year career at Phillips Andover prep school and headed Project STEP, a classical music academy for gifted minority students run by the Boston Symphony and New England Conservatory of Music.

Thomas says the restored church building would be a fitting tribute to 19th-century Lexington blacks who accomplished great things against all odds. Coincidentally, he said, the church is at the site of a former clock and cabinet shop where Hayden worked for one of his masters, Elijah Warner.

Strangis’ book tells how Hayden was sold to Warner by his first master, the Rev. Adam Rankin, whose circa 1784 house is the oldest still standing in Lexington.

While Hayden belonged to Warner, he married another slave, Esther, and they had a son. But when Esther’s owner’s business failed, she and their son were purchased by Henry Clay. The statesman later sold them South, and Hayden never saw his family again. He married a second time, to Harriet Bell, a slave who had a young son.

Hayden was sold in 1840 to a man who whipped him, then two years later to two businessmen who leased him to the Phoenix Hotel, where he worked as a waiter.

Through his various jobs, Hayden learned more than most slaves did about the white world, including how to read. Inspired by Lafayette and angry with Clay, Hayden vowed that he and his second family would be free someday.

In the fall of 1844, Hayden planned his escape with help from two white abolitionists, Delia Webster, a Vermonter who ran a Lexington girls’ school, and Calvin Fairbank, a ministerial student at Oberlin College in Ohio who helped free several Kentucky slaves. They smuggled the Hayden family across the Ohio River, and the Underground Railroad helped them all the way to Canada.

Webster and Fairbank were not so fortunate. Convicted of helping the Haydens escape, Webster became one of the first women imprisoned in Kentucky, although she was pardoned two months into her two-year sentence. Fairbank spent five years in prison.

After a short time in Canada, Hayden felt called to return to this country and join the anti-slavery movement. His family settled in Boston, running a clothing store and boarding house, and assisting escaped slaves.

Hayden learned in 1849 that if he repaid his Lexington owner $650 as compensation for his loss, the man would petition Kentucky’s governor to free Fairbank. So Hayden bought the freedom of the man who had helped him secure his.

If Lewis Hayden’s story ended there, it would be remarkable. But he went on to do much, much more. Read about that in my column next Wednesday.

Built by slaves, sanctuary could have new future

February 29, 2012


One of Lexington’s most significant black-history landmarks would become a concert hall, a cultural center and a museum if a new non-profit foundation can raise several million dollars to buy, restore and operate it.

The First African Foundation has reached a tentative agreement with Central Christian Church to buy the former First African Baptist Church building at the corner of Short and Deweese streets. A final agreement must be approved by Central Christian’s leaders and congregation, said James Hodge, a church trustee. He declined to disclose the purchase price or terms.

William Thomas, a Lexington native who moved back in 2008 after retiring as music department chair at the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, said he was inspired to organize the effort after reading about the building’s amazing history two years ago.

The Italianate-style sanctuary, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a handsome building. What makes it amazing is that most of the people who built and paid for it in the 1850s were slaves.

First African Baptist Church and Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church trace their roots to Peter Durrett, a slave who in 1790 started the first black church west of the Allegheny Mountains. Durrett died in 1823 and was succeeded by London Ferrill, a slave who gained his freedom and was widely respected by blacks and whites alike.

In 1833, Ferrill became a local hero when he risked his life to minister to victims of a cholera epidemic that killed 500 of Lexington’s 7,000 residents. That same year, he moved his congregation to the corner of Short and Deweese. Construction of the present building began about 1850. Ferrill died in 1854, and his funeral procession attracted 5,000 mourners. The sanctuary was completed in 1856.

Ferrill was a powerful preacher who baptized thousands. Because slave families were often split up by sale, many walked miles each Sunday to attend services at First African Church — and have their only opportunity to see each other.

First African Baptist Church added a Tudor-style addition and a columned portico on the sanctuary in 1926. The congregation moved to Price Road in 1987 and sold its historic building to Central Christian. A child-care center now in the building would be relocated if the sale is approved, Hodge said.

Architect Gregory Fitzsimons, who developed a renovation plan for the foundation, said the building is in good condition. Still, it would take about $4 million buy, renovate and enlarge the building for the foundation’s proposed uses. Thomas also wants to raise several million more dollars to operate and endow the building and programs.

The old sanctuary, now used as a gymnasium, would become a 400-seat concert hall. Thomas would like the proposed concert hall to host local musicians and visiting ensembles that highlight African-American music. One such group is the American Spiritual Ensemble, a Lexington-based international touring company founded by Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program.

“It’s something we would certainly consider,” McCorvey said. “I was very impressed with the potential of what that facility could become. The church has a wonderful history. It’s certainly worth preserving.”

Thomas, who taught at Phillips Andover for 36 years, spent three years as artistic director of Project STEP, a classical music academy for gifted minority students in Boston run by the Boston Symphony and the New England Conservatory of Music. Thomas would like to start a similar program here.

Yvonne Giles, who started the Isaac Scott Hathaway museum of Kentucky black history, is on the foundation’s board. The building could eventually house that collection and host a variety of cultural programs, Thomas said.

The 10-member board includes Dan Rowland, a UK history professor; Lisa Higgins-Hord, UK’s vice president of community engagement; Urban County Councilman Chris Ford and architect Van Meter Pettit.

First African Baptist Church leaders support the project, and several were among about 50 people who attended a fund-raising reception Saturday at a home near Nicholasville. The event included a string quartet that played classical music by black composer William Grant Still.

“Fiscally, we’re in tough shoes, but this building is a national treasure,” Thomas said of the foundation’s ambitious fund-raising goal. “To know that folks in bondage committed their resources, which were so limited, to build such a remarkable structure inspires us to do great things with it.”

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Journal issue focuses on Kentucky black history

February 22, 2012

Kentuckians love a good story. But when it comes to recording the stories of blacks in the commonwealth, historians have had a lot of catching up to do.

Gerald Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor, makes that point in the introduction to a special black-history issue of The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, which he edited for publication in April.

Historians had written about slavery in antebellum Kentucky, but a deeper exploration of the black experience didn’t really begin until 1971, Smith writes. That was when the Kentucky Human Rights Commission published Kentucky Black Heritage, a supplementary text for seven- and eighth-grade students.

Then, in 1982, The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians was published by Alice Dunnigan, who was born in Russellville in 1906. Dunnigan made history of her own in 1948 when she accompanied Harry S. Truman on a Western tour, becoming the first black journalist in Washington to cover a presidential trip.

A scholarship milestone came in 1985 when George C. Wright published a book about black life in Louisville between the Civil War and 1930, Smith said. Wright followed that five years later with the chillingly detailed study, Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940. Wright, now president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas, and Marion Lucas, a Western Kentucky University history professor, published the two-volume A History of Blacks in Kentucky in 1992.

Since then, more academics have mined this rich vein, including Smith and fellow historians J. Blaine Hudson, John Hardin, Tracy E. K’Meyer and Douglas A. Boyd. Another valuable resource is the UK Libraries’ Notable Kentucky African American Database.

Smith, Hardin and Karen C. McDaniel are now editing the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia and trying to raise money to finish the book by 2014.

Smith said this issue of The Register is another significant milestone. The Register, created in 1903, is one of the nation’s oldest historical journals. The quarterly publishes work from leading academics, but it also tries to be accessible to average readers. It is a good mix of scholarship and storytelling.

Hudson writes about the free black community in antebellum Louisville, and Hardin tells the stories of key figures in the desegregation of higher education in Kentucky. Smith writes about Kentucky chapters of the Congress of Racial Equality during the civil rights movement. Joshua D. Farrington’s article looks at strategies used to pass public accommodation laws in Louisville in 1960 and 1961.

One of the most interesting stories, by Sallie L. Powell, is titled “It is Hard to be What You Have not Seen.” It tells about Brenda Hughes of Lexington and the complex issues of race, gender and sports culture that she navigated to become a pioneer in Kentucky’s unofficial religion, basketball.

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association certified Hughes as a basketball referee in 1973. She went on to become the only black woman to officiate at a Kentucky girls’ state tournament game during the 20th century.

Good timing helped Hughes, a young mother of two, succeed. In 1971, a federal judge had ordered the KHSAA to hire more black referees. That was because, 15 years after desegregation, half of student athletes were black, but only 1 percent of refs were. The year after Hughes became a referee, the federal Title IX law forced Kentucky to reinstatement girls’ high school basketball after a 40-year absence that many people blamed on sexism.

While studying at the old Dunbar High School and UK, Hughes’ only athletic opportunities were cheerleading. But she grew up with three brothers, and sports became her passion. The full-time postal worker became a part-time youth sports leader for the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“This is no front or cause for me,” she told Lexington Leader reporter Gary Yunt in 1973. “I want to be a referee.”

Hughes died in 1986 at age 39. Nine years later, she was inducted into the Dawahares-Kentucky High School Athletic Association Sports Hall of Fame. Her story, and others told in this issue ofThe Register, remind us that Kentucky history is a rich tapestry of stories, from epic social movements to a young woman determined to become what she has not seen.

Mary Britton was a woman ahead of her time

February 14, 2012

Dr. Mary E. Britton is surrounded by men at this 1910 meeting of Kentucky physicians, dentists and pharmacists. Photo courtesy of Thomas Tolliver.

In Mary E. Britton’s time, a black girl in Lexington wasn’t supposed to grow up to be a teacher. Much less a journalist, a civil rights activist, a social reformer or a medical doctor.

Britton became all of those. “She has an amazing story,” said Gerald Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor who is editing the forthcoming Kentucky African American Encyclopedia.

Britton was born in 1855 to Henry and Laura Britton, a free black couple who lived on Mill Street in what is now Gratz Park, just a few doors down from the future Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan.

Undated photo of Mary E. Britton. Photo courtesy of Berea College

From 1871-74, Britton attended Berea College, the first institution of higher learning in Kentucky to admit blacks. About the only profession open to educated women of any race at that time was teaching, and Britton taught in segregated public schools in Lexington and Fayette County, according to a biographical material in The Kentucky Encyclopedia and on the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights’ Web site.

As Southern states enacted “Jim Crow” laws in the late 1800s to repeal civil rights afforded to blacks after slavery and to enforce segregation, Britton wrote commentaries opposing those laws for several Lexington newspapers.

“She came out of that Berea tradition of a teacher who becomes a social activist,” Smith said.

In a lengthy commentary in the April 19, 1892, edition of The Kentucky Leader, Britton didn’t pull any punches in telling the newspaper’s largely white readership why the General Assembly should not approve a law requiring blacks and whites to ride in separate railway coaches.

“We are aware that the Assembly has the power to inflict such a law, but is it right?” she wrote. “While we have no longer to chill the blood of our friends by talking of branding irons, chains, whips, blood hounds and to the many physical wrongs and abominations of slavery, this foe of American prejudice renders our lives insecure, our homes unhappy, and crushes out the very sinew of existence — freedom and citizenship.”

The Separate Coach Law passed anyway, and Britton turned her attention to another problem afflicting her race: the lack of adequate health care. Britton enrolled in the American Missionary College in Chicago and graduated with a medical degree.

In 1902, she became the first black woman in Lexington to be a licensed physician.

Mary E. Britton treated patients from her home. Photo by Tom Eblen

Britton treated patients in her small home at 545 North Limestone. Her specialties included hydrotherapy and electrotherapy — the use of water and electricity to treat illnesses and disease.

It is hard to imagine now just what a pioneer Britton was for her time. Thomas Tolliver lives in a house on East Third Street that once belonged to T.T. Wendell, another early black physician. Tolliver found an old photograph in the attic from a 1910 meeting of the Medical Society of Negro Physicians. The photograph shows Britton on the front row, surrounded by men.

Despite a busy medical practice, Britton remained active in civil rights and the growing women’s rights movement. “You talk about a civil rights advocate,” Smith said. “Here was a woman in the late 19th century who was really going at it.”

Britton was one of 15 black women in Lexington who founded the Colored Orphan Industrial Home on Georgetown Street. The century-old building now houses the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center and the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum. Britton died in 1925 at age 70 and is buried in Cove Haven Cemetery.

Two of her siblings also achieved fame in their time. Brother Tom Britton (1870-1901) was a successful jockey who won the 1891 Kentucky Oaks aboard Miss Hawkins and came within six inches of winning the 1892 Kentucky Derby on Huron. His health and fortunes declined after a bad racing accident, and he eventually killed himself.

Sister Julia Britton Hooks (1852-1942) also attended Berea and became the college’s first black faculty member, teaching instrumental music. She moved to Memphis, married Charles Hooks and opened a music school. Among her students was the blues legend W.C. Handy.

Like her sister, Hooks was politically active, becoming a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1909. Her grandson’s name might be familiar: Benjamin Hooks was executive director of the NAACP from 1977 to 1992.

Black history museum has fitting new home

February 8, 2012

The Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum’s new home seems almost fitting: Black history was once something of an orphan when it came to the study of Kentucky history.

The museum moved last summer into the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center, a century-old building on Georgetown Street that once was the Colored Orphan Industrial Home.

“Our purpose is to highlight Kentucky African-Americans,” said Yvonne Giles, the driving force behind the museum and one of Lexington’s go-to people for black history information.

Much of the museum’s collection has been donated or loaned by black Kentuckians who want to preserve their heritage. Several exhibits highlight the accomplishments of black Kentuckians such as Hathaway, a Lexington native for whom the museum in named.

Hathaway (1872-1967) was an art professor, ceramic artist and sculptor who was the first African-American to design U.S. coins: half-dollars honoring Booker T. Washington in 1946 and George Washington Carver in 1951.

One exhibit tells the story of the Tandy family. Henry Tandy (1853-1918), a builder who did the brick work beneath the stone facade of the old Fayette County Courthouse, was thought to be the richest black Kentuckian at the turn of the last century. His son, Vertner Tandy (1885-1949), was the first black registered architect in New York and one of the seven founders of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity.

The daughter of “Smoke” Richardson, a local jazz band leader, donated his records and photos, and a violin. Richardson played sax, but when his daughter was young, she wanted to learn to play the violin. So he sold his sax to buy her one, Giles said. Next to that display is information about contemporary jazz pianist Kevin Harris, a Lexington native who now teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston.

The museum doesn’t shy away from some unpleasant or controversial aspects of black history. There are shackles and other slavery artifacts, a lawn jockey, a collection of black dolls, and old advertising art that promoted black stereotypes.

Several items depict Aunt Jemima of pancake fame. Nancy Green was born into slavery near Mount Sterling in 1834, and at age 56, she was hired to become one of advertising’s first living trademarks. A good cook and storyteller, she drew big crowds when she launched the pancake mix at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. She traveled the country as a popular brand ambassador until she was killed in a car wreck in 1923.

“People are always looking at these things and saying: He was from Lexington? She was from Kentucky? I didn’t know that!” Giles said.

The museum, founded in 2002, has had about 1,000 visitors since moving in July from the old Fayette County Courthouse. That building, which houses the Lexington History Museum and two smaller museums, is in desperate need of renovation. The heat and air conditioning no longer work, which Giles said made it difficult to recruit volunteers.

Moving to the old orphanage also was a way to showcase that historic building. The Colored Orphan Industrial Home’s fascinating story is told in a 1995 book by Lauretta Flynn Byars.

The orphanage was an early example of leadership by Lexington’s black women. Fifteen women established the institution in an old house on Georgetown Street in 1892 and raised operating money through a variety of creative means.

One important — and ironic — fund-raising method was to pay Robert Fitzhugh to travel the nation soliciting donations. Not only was Fitzhugh white, but he was from a pro-slavery Virginia family and had been a captain on Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s staff during the Civil War.

A fire in 1912 destroyed the orphanage and killed three children. But the women and Fitzhugh quickly raised money for the current building, where orphans lived, were educated and learned trades in a sewing studio and adjacent blacksmith and shoemaking shops. The orphanage closed in 1988 and became a cultural center named for Robert H. Williams, one of the orphanage’s major donors.

“We’ve had several visitors to the museum who, as children, lived at the home,” Giles said. “They’ve even come in and said, ‘My bed was over there.'”

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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.