A Coup in America

Cape Fear Memorial Bridge in Wilmington, North Carolina. Author’s collection.

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Port City – Wilmington, North Carolina – several times over the past few years. It offers a busy and vibrant downtown, is the home of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and has nearby some beautiful beaches. Wilmington is nestled between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean.

Wilmington also has a most troubled history. As a southern town, it almost goes without saying that the early economy of New Hanover County prospered because of slave labor. As a major port, railroads crossed North Carolina toward Wilmington where goods were exported around the globe.

Following emancipation and during Reconstruction, Wilmington continued to grow in prosperity. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Black Republicans and their Fusionist allies saw the election of the city’s multiracial government. But underneath the success of progress, the sin of racism festered.

The Coup & Killings of 1898

White supremacists sought to defeat the elected multiracial government at the ballot box and to remove Blacks from power in Wilmington altogether. They threatened actions “by the ballot or bullet or both.” For months, the local newspaper had published misleading and outright lies in an attempt to divide the community and to incite white Wilmingtonians to fear their Black neighbors. On November 8, 1898, Democrats took every action imaginable to suppress the Black vote. Ballot boxes were stuffed with new ballots to the point where ballots far outnumbered the population.

But it was two days later, November 10, 1898, that the worst of the violence occurred. The Black-owned newspaper, the Record, was burned. Shots were fired in cold blood: at least sixty Black men were killed. Thousands more fled their homes and livelihoods; many were threatened to never return to the Port City upon threat of death.

I cannot even begin to fully lay out all that took place leading up to November 10, 1898, what took place that day, or what ensued for decades to come. I highly recommend David Zucchino’s Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy to better understand this terrible chapter in our American history.

A report prepared a century after the coup concluded that the events of 1898 led “directly to strict residential segregation in Wilmington, decades of Jim Crow discrimination, and the disenfranchisement of the state’s black citizens.” Wilmington’s Lie at 341.

A Memorial to 1898

Even after several visits to Wilmington, I knew little of what had taken place here in 1898. (Which is why I took Zucchino’s book with me on an early trip there in 2020.) And I did not know that there stood a memorial to what had taken place.

Wilmington’s 1898 racial violence was not accidental. It began a successful statewide Democratic campaign to regain control of state government, disenfranchise African-Americans, and create a system of legal segregation which persisted into the second half of the 20th century.

It would take Wilmington a century to recognize and begin the effort to memorialize “those who suffered as a result of the violence of November 1898.” An 1898 Foundation was established and, a decade later, the memorial was dedicated near the site where some of the worst violence occurred.

A plaque at the memorial reads:

These six bronze paddles stand as a memorial to those who suffered as a result of the violence of November 1898. The paddles refer symbolically to water, an important element in the spiritual belief system of people from the African continent. They believed water to be the medium for moving from this life to the next. Water is also incorporated into a diversity of beliefs throughout the world to symbolize purification, renewal, rebirth, forgiveness, cleansing and wholeness.

For this city that grew up beside the waters of the Cape Fear, these paddles symbolize a type of passage as well. The memorial stands here on the banks of this river as a testimonial to a community that, one hundred years later, strove to acknowledge injustices of the past and worked to move forward together towards a society of greater justice and inclusiveness for all its citizens.

We believe these slender yet strong paddles, though rooted in this soil of past memories, rise skyward to the future in a spirit of reconciliation and hope.

Members of the 1898 Foundation, 8 November 2008
The 1898 Memorial in Wilmington, North Carolina. Author’s collection.

I visited the 1898 Memorial and learned about this horrible tragedy during the summer of 2020 while America again reeled from the killings of Black men and women. In the wake of these tragedies, Americans have again examined the importance of which people and events are memorialized, honored, and glorified. In Wilmington, North Carolina, police officers were fired after for “brutally racist” language. News of this broke as I departed Wilmington; when I returned home to Kentucky, two Confederate monuments were removed albeit for “safe keeping” in order to comport with laws passed by the North Carolina legislature to protect these kinds of monuments. And as with other Confederacy-glorifying monuments, the future of the two in Wilmington remains unclear.

I will not include photographs in this post of the two Confederate monuments which, for now at least, are in an undisclosed location. I bring them into this discussion only because, for a decade, they stood in Wilmington near the 1898 Memorial honoring completely two different things.

But as it states on the plaque to the 1898 Memorial, we ought to “move forward together toward a society of greater justice and inclusiveness for all its citizens.” It is a long, slow, but important road. And as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

George Floyd and Will Lockett

Chalk Drawing of George Floyd (1973-2020). Chalk: by Jada Commodore. Author’s collection.

Throughout our nation, protestors are righteously standing up to police overreach and brutality. Protestors gather in remembrance of the many people of color whose lives have been tragically cut short by legal tactics that have been labeled as a form of modern-day lynching. Protestors gather to remember. They gather to say his name: George Floyd. To say her name: Breonna Taylor.

Earlier this year, my book The Murder of Geneva Hardman and Lexington’s Mob Riot of 1920 was published. In it, I included a paraphrase of a quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I’ve thought a lot about that quote over the past week because, watching the news, I question how far we have come as a nation.

I could not help but compare (and contrast) what is happening today following the murder of George Floyd with what took place a century ago in Lexington, Kentucky following the arrest of Will Lockett. These two men of color were accused of very different crimes and they received very different treatment. This is especially so given that a century had lapsed between these two events. How has that arc of the moral universe evolved?

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Crimes Committed


In southern Fayette County, Kentucky, a ten-year old girl – Geneva Hardman – was brutally murdered and quite likely sexually assaulted.


In Minneapolis, Minnesota, an employee at a deli called 911 to report that he believed a counterfeit $20 bill had been used to purchase cigarettes.

The Immediate Response


Without hesitation, the focus was on Will Lockett. Lynch mobs began to form with the purpose of hunting down the accused. Police and sheriffs deputies from three counties also searched for several hours before Will Lockett was apprehended by Dr. Collette and Officer White of the Versailles Police Department. In soiled and bloodstained clothes, Lockett was put into the back of a vehicle and transported downtown to the Lexington Police Department’s headquarters. There, Will Lockett confessed to having committed the crime of which he was accused.


Police responded to the scene. Within 17 minutes after the police arrived, Mr. George Floyd was “unconscious and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life.”* One officer had kept his knee on Mr. Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — far longer than George Floyd maintained consciousness.

Protestors Gather


In 1920, the lynch mob did not stop their desire for vengeance. They searched the police station and then the jail, but local and state officials did what they could to protect the confessed murderer. (Was the confession coerced? A valid question and one explored in the book. The justice system of 1920 functioned quite differently than the justice system should function in 2020.) Five days on, Lockett’s trial was held in the Fayette County Courthouse. Outside the courthouse, thousands gathered. Some in the group surged forward, and soldiers stationed around the courthouse responded.

Mob gathered outside courthouse, February 9, 1920. J. Winston Coleman Collection.


The night following George Floyd’s murder, many gathered in Minnesota’s Twin Cities to protest specifically against the police tactics utilized in Floyd’s death and more broadly against the systemic racial inequality that has plagued this country for more than 400 years. These protests have spread across the United States into all fifty states as well as overseas. Although some protests have become violent, they have remained largely peaceful.

Shots Fired & National Awareness


As the mob in front of the courthouse in Lexington began to surge, Lockett’s defense counsel was delivering closing remarks pleading that his client might be saved from execution. Shots rang out in a volley that resulted in the deaths of six protestors.

The murder of Geneva Hardman, the Lockett trial, and the declaration of martial law was picked up by newswires and carried nationally including multiple stories in the New York Times.


Just as shots were fired a century ago in Kentucky, shots rang out at the crowd in the city of Louisville. Though protests in Louisville have been largely peaceful, there have been some incidents of property damage (including the loss of Louis XVI hand) and violence. On June 1, however, David McAtee was shot and killed by police while operating his bbq stand after midnight. It is unclear what precisely took place because police had deactivated their body cameras. Kentucky is once again the focus of national attention for its state of emergency.em

Femi Oyeniran
Lexingtonians seek justice for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Femi Oyeniran.

Looks like Martial Law


Following the shooting outside the courthouse, martial law was declared in Lexington, Kentucky for about two weeks to ensure no more violence occurred. Although the initial show of force was strong with bayonets fixed marching down Main Street, local officials were permitted to function and life was largely normal. It was a sort of “martial law light.”


Images of police in riot gear across the nation. Clearing areas of peaceful protest even before an imposed curfew. Guardsmen on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Although martial law has not been declared, there is a sense that in part of America that there is at least the appearance of martial law.


There are parts of these stories which are easy to contrast: a crime committed by a person of color and an escalated response.

The events are easier to contrast. Will Lockett was electrocuted a month after his trial, while George Floyd never received even an arraignment for his alleged crime. It is positively clear that Floyd received no justice whatsoever. Though it is questioned by some today, Lockett did receive a semblance of justice particularly given the era in which those events occurred a century ago.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice? It is fair to question whether or not it has over the past century when looking at these two specific events, though a broader picture examining Miranda and other advances in due process might still show a forward-moving bend toward justice. In 2020, we can only hope, pray, and demand justice for George Floyd, for Breonna Taylor, for David McAtee, and for so many others. Hopefully, the arc’s progress has a longer path yet to tread.

In Lexington, protests have remained peaceful. In some instances, local police have walked with protestors and taken a knee to honor the lives lost. No curfew has been imposed in Lexington. This sort of peaceful approach makes Lexington a leader among cities (though still imperfect).

In 1920, Lexington was also perceived to be a leader. Civil rights leader W.E.B. Dubois described the local and state response to the riots during the Lockett trial (and the protection of Will Lockett before and during the trial) as “The Second Battle of Lexington” referring to the opening conflict of the Revolutionary War – it was believed to be the first time in the history of the southern United States that local and state authorities had stopped a lynch mob.

When I graduated from law school, I was given a poster with the Hebrew words Tzedek tzedek tirdof. From Deuteronomy, it means “Justice! Justice! You shall pursue!” It is my prayer that we, as a nation, will pursue (and truly achieve) justice.

This post contains excerpts from Peter Brackney’s The Murder of Geneva Hardman and Lexington’s Mob Riot of 1920 (The History Press, Charleston, SC: 2020).

For more information about the book or to schedule an event with the author, click here.

The featured image was taken during the Lexington protests on Tuesday, June 2. On the right is the Fayette County Courthouse where Will Lockett was tried.

George Kinkead House is Home to Living Arts & Science Center

Architect’s Rendering. LASC

At 362 North Walnut Street stands the old antebellum mansion historically known as the George B. Kinkead House. The house has been the home to the Living Arts and Science Center since 1971. In 2011, a modern 11,000 square foot addition was proposed to the facility to grow LASC’s programming capacity and physical footprint. The old mansion is approximately 7,000 square feet.

The Home

In 1847, George B. Kinkead had constructed a Greek Revival two-story townhouse and the home was adapted at least twice during the family’s ownership. Around the time of the Civil War, the building was “Italicized” “with the addition of a third-floor attic and probably a two-story section on the north side of the main block.”

362 N. Martin Luther King. UK Collections.

The application for inclusion to the National Register describes the House as follows: “Originally a large-scale Greek Revival townhouse (although then in a suburban setting on the outskirts of town), it was sympathetically enlarged during the Civil War period with Italianate features, for members o the Kinkead family who had originally built it and who owned the property until 1982. Notable features are the Doric entrance porch, plaster ceiling medallions, Grecian marble mantels, and plain but handsome woodwork from both building faces.”

It is believed that Thomas Lewinski was the architect for the original construction, and perhaps the “Italicization” as well.

George Blackburn Kinkead

George B. Kinkead was a lawyer to Abraham Lincoln and his family and was a forward-thinking attorney and denizen of Lexington in the mid-nineteenth century.

As of 1855, he was one of three faculty members at Transylvania’s Law Department where he taught “the practice of law, pleading and evidence, and the law of contract.” By 1857, however, Kinkead had ended his affiliation with the Law Department and the department closed the following year. Although the need for lawyers remained, the academic approach to a legal education was not yet in vogue, but rather the “archaic apprenticeship system” remained the method of choice.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was both pro-Union and anti-slavery. After the war, he provided 11 acres of land around his home to freed slaves. This area became known as Kinkeadtown. As was written on this site in 2012, “Kinkeadtown comprises the heart of the East End, though there is scant evidence other than the expansive mansion of the old community.” The Notable Kentucky African Americans Database * included this regarding Kinkeadtown:

Kinkeadtown was bottomland that included more recently Illinois, Kinkead, and Mosby Streets; it was around the area where Elm Tree Lane intersects with Fourth and Fifth Streets. The land had been subdivided by abolitionist George B. Kinkead in 1870 and sold exclusively to African Americans. Populated by about 20 families in 1880, it grew to include over 300 residents. The section of Elm Tree Lane and the remainder of Kinkeadtown, between Fourth and Fifth Streets, were purchased by the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government in the 1990s. The shotgun and T-plan houses were demolished in preparation for the extension of Rose Street.

Kinkead died in November 1877. His 1874 will left all of his assets to his “dear wife, absolutely” and directed that no appraisal be conducted. As noted previously, the Kinkead family remained in possession until the property became home to the Living Arts and Science Center.

A Blue Grass Trust deTour is scheduled for next week to explore the adaptive reuse of this antebellum home as well as the merging of the property with the recent contemporary addition. The import of Kinkeadtown will also be discussed. More details are included below…

Eblen, Tom. Living Arts & Science Center plans $5 million expansion project. Lexington Herald-Leader, Nov. 16, 2011.
National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. Kinkead House (PDF). May 1982. 
Sloan, Jason. Kinkead House, home of Living Arts and Science Center, ready for contemporary architecture addition. Kaintuckeean, Feb. 2012. 
Wright, John D., Jr. Transylvania: Tutor to the West. (Transylvania University: Lexington, 1975). 

The Lord Giveth and the Lord Taketh Away

St. Peter Claver Catholic Church is located at the northeast corner of Jefferson and Fourth streets in Lexington’s Northside neighborhood. On November 6, 2015, the demolition permit was issued for this holy place.

But we knew it was coming.

The demolition is part of Phase II of a rehabilitation of the campus for this parish which dates to the 1880s. According to an April 1907 edition of the Lexington Leader, a “Catholic Church for the Negroes in Lexington is now under organization [and] a chapel has been secured in the colored Catholic school on West Fourth street, near Jefferson, and it will be opened within a short time.” Previously, space was reserved “in the local Catholic Church for the colored people to worship.”

In Phase One, the ca. 1913 parish school was renovated earning high marks and awards from historic preservationists. Now, in Phase Two, the church builing (mid-20th century) is being demolished to make way for a larger sanctuary.

Although in 1995, the Diocese cut the number of priests at the three downtown parishes from 3 to 2, the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church has been bursting at the seams. The new facility will have seating for 450, up from about 250. It is a growing parish that is serving the needs of its community.

Saint Peter Claver was a Jesuit priest. A Spanish native who immigrated to present-day Columbia in 1610. Among other things, he is the patron saint of race relations and ministry to African-Americans. He was canonized in in 1888 by Pope Leo XIII.

A Review of The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia

Over 150 writers contributed to The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia which is being published this month by the University Press of Kentucky. Editors Gerald L. Smith, Karen Cotton McDaniel, and John A. Hardin have compiled what is being described as “a foundational guide to the black experience in the Commonwealth.”

The beautiful 596-page tome is not without its flaws. Although the entry on “slave trade” did note that Lexington and Louisville “became centers of the slave commerce,” there was no entry dedicated to the markets themselves. An informed entry on “Cheapside” would have been an excellent addition – the full dialogue on this subject seems to be missing which has spawned a political issue in and of itself. Another addition I would have preferred to have seen would have been a place index. Connecting the dots of multiple references within the text to a particular Kentucky town or county would have assisted local researchers, though the information is probably easily gleaned from a digital version of the text.

Notwithstanding these small contentions, the volume is filled with the long-undertold parts of Kentucky’s rich history. Any lover of Kentucky history would be well-served by sitting down for an afternoon to peruse this book, then to keep it nearby for regular consultation.

To celebrate Kentucky’s bicentennial in 1992, the Kentucky Encyclopedia was born. Since, two regional encyclopedia’s (Louisville and Northern Kentucky) have continued to tell the stories of the individuals, places, organizations, and events that have shaped Kentucky’s storied past. Now, the stories involving Kentucky’s African-American past are being told in a single volume.

First African Baptist Church in Lexington.

The entry on Lexington’s First African Baptist Church tells the early challenges experienced by Peter Durrett, the slave who helped organize and pastor the church that was once the largest congregation in Kentucky. (At least two other historic black Lexington churches, Antioch (Colored) Christian and St. Paul AME lack entries.)

The entry on Margaret Garner, the escaped slave who was on the most “complex figures in the history of American slavery,” is heart wrenching.

The release of this book on August 28 itself holds significance. Seven years ago (2008), Barack Obama became the first African-American to accept the nomination of a major political party for President of the United States. Forty-five years earlier (52 years ago, 1963), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his I Have a Dream speech in Washington, D.C.

While history may not hold the release of the Kentucky African-American Encyclopedia on the same level from the perspective of national import, it is still a significant step toward understanding the history of all Kentuckians.

Disclaimer: The author was provided a courtesy copy of this book. This review followed.

Gallery Hop on the Architectural Heritage of African Americans in Lexington

Jonathan Miller’s “On Your Own” Will Launch on Friday. BGT.

Small African-American hamlets like Kinkeadtown and Cadentown used to dot Fayette County’s map, but have long since been absorbed into the larger community.

On Friday evening, the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation will host an exhibit during Gallery Hop that will explore the rich architectural heritage of African Americans in Lexington with a focus on these communities and the legacy of Vertner Tandy.

In addition, Jonathan Miller’s “On Your Own” will launch on Friday evening with 20% of profits from Gallery Hop sales being donated to the BGT. The collection of short stories “follows the kind of people you know, but reveals the thoughts and feelings they might never tell you. Like the sun providing a rare glimpse down the clear water of a well, the clarity of prose in On Your Own allows us to witness people as their deeper realizations become known.”

Outside the Tandy House at 642 W. Main St. in Lexington. 

The exhibit centers on architect Vertner Tandy. Vertner Tandy was born in Lexington in 1885, and went on to become the first licensed African American architect in New York and the first African American to become a member of the American Institute of Architects.

A historic marker on Lexington’s West Main Street marks Tandy’s family home:

Born in Lexington, son of Henry A. Tandy, respected African American contractor. Attended the Chandler School, Tuskegee Institute, Cornell Univ. 1st registered black architect in New York State, where he built landmark homes & buildings. A founder of Alpha Phi Alpha, the oldest African American fraternity.

The photo above was taken during the March 2011 deTour of the Western Historic Suburb outside of the Tandy House.

Tandy designed many NYC landmarks including Mother Zion AME Church, St. Phillips Episcopal Church, and the Abraham Lincoln Houses on 135th Street. Lexington’s Webster Hall, 548 Georgetown Street, was also designed by Tandy.

For more about the upcoming Gallery Hop, you can check out or rsvp to the event on Facebook.

Gallery Hop:
Architectural Heritage of African Americans in Lexington &
On Your Own” Book Launch
July 17, 2015
from 5:00 to 8:00

Hunt-Morgan House
201 N. Mill Street, Lexington

Free and open to the public.

Celebrating Juneteenth: 150 Years Since Emancipation

 African Cemetery No. 2.

On June 19th, 1865, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. With them, came news of the end of the Civil War along with word that those enslaved were now free.

Despite this being more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Texans were so removed that the President’s executive order was never enforced. But Major General Gordon Granger offered this General Order No. 3:

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

Among those Union troops arriving at Galveston were six regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops organized in Kentucky. Those regiments, and the location of their organization, are listed below:
109th – Louisville
114th – Camp Nelson
115th – Bowling Green
116th – Camp Nelson
117th – Covington
122nd – Louisville

African Cemetery No. 2, Lexington, Ky. Fred Rogers/NRHP

Tomorrow – June 19, 2015 – marks 150 years from the anniversary of freedom for all Americans. Over the past 150 years, Juneteenth celebrations have become more commonplace … though the celebration is still not widespread.

Since 2003, Juneteenth has been annually celebrated in Lexington, Kentucky at the African Cemetery No. 2 on East Seventh Street (Note, however, that local festivities are held on Saturday closest to Juneteenth).

This year, the sesquicenntial celebration will include a flag ceremony honoring the 65 known USCT soldiers buried at the ceremony who served at Galveston. Also included will be discussions on Fayette County’s African-American hamlets of Bracktown and Adamstown.

Juneteenth Celebration
June 20, 2015
10:00 a.m. to noon

African  Cemetery No. 2.
419 E. Seventh St., Lexington

Free and open to the public.

Finding and Discovering Eddie Street

I saw that a demolition permit had been issued for another shotgun house. This one is on Eddie Street and it was filed on Monday, May 4.

Eddie Street? In all my walks of downtown Lexington, I couldn’t recall being down Eddie Street. So I  found it on a map and headed that way. Parallel to Main Street, Eddie runs between North Limestone and Maple Avenue to the north of Seventh Street.

Eddie Street has a lot of shotguns. It was interesting how the Eddie Street shotguns have evolved over time. Some have stone façades and others have been covered in brick. Many are covered with vinyl siding, while a couple still reveal their old cedar siding.

There are also some cottages, a couple of Habitat homes, and one structure that appeared to be the street’s oldest.

165 Eddie Street, Lexington, Ky. Author’s collection.

According to the Fayette PVA, 165 Eddie Street was built in 1900 though I suspect its history is older.  At a full two stories, the structure stood out on the street (a fact aided by its vibrant blue color). One of its residents was “a United Methodist minister and Lexington civic leader” who died in the home in August 1986 according to the Herald-Leader. According to the Notable Kentucky African American Database, Rev. Horace Henry Greene was the first African American president of the Louisville Ministerial Association (1961). Five years later, he became the second African American to fill a school board seat on Lexington’s school board. He also was the first black city commissioner candidate in Lexington.

But a glance at property records indicate that the house remained in family hands for 20 years after Rev. Greene’s passing, but in a sad twist the home was lost to foreclosure in 2006. The property has exchanged hands several times since and is now owned by a landlord in Arkansas.

These once heavily owner-occupied enclaves have increasingly become rental properties owned by distant landlords.

News articles mentioning Eddie Street date back to 1902 with the vast majority of mentions being in the newspapers’ “colored” sections. One article, dating from a January 1913 edition of the Lexington Leader had the headline “Water Drives Out Residents on Eddie Street.” It read, “the recent heavy rains have caused a great gathering of the waters in the low section of the city around Eddie street, and many of the families were forced to leave their homes at a late hour Saturday night to escape being drowned in their beds.”

Flooding didn’t seem to occupy the newspapers’ references to Eddie Street over the following decades, though drug deals and arson did seem to play a major role in the neighborhood’s development.

The decline in the neighborhood gives rise to vacant and condemned properties, and thus the recent demolition permit.

The building slated for demolition, 128 Eddie Street, recently suffered from a fire. The demolition permit is made by LuigART Makers Spaces. LuigART is a “program that transforms vacant or condemned properties in the North Limestone neighborhood into affordable live/work units that are respective to the neighborhood’s historical context” according to the NoLi CDC.

NoLi CDC and LuigART are hoping to duplicate their success from shotgun renovations on York Street on Eddie Street. With an ambitious goal of rebuilding six houses on Eddie Street this summer, the work begins at 128 Eddie.

It’s here that it is worth noting (again) that a demolition permit isn’t always a bad thing. This permit indicates an investment in the community by transforming an otherwise vacant or condemned structure.

First African Baptist Church: A Historic Structure, a Historic Faith, and a Determined Future

First African Baptist Church at Short & DeWeese  – Lexington, Ky.

At the southwest corner of East Short and DeWeese Streets stands the oldest African-American church in Kentucky and the third oldest African American Baptist church in the nation. The strong edifice of the First African Baptist Church anchors this once residential block and seeks to once again anchor the East End community.

Labeled in the 1890 Sanborn insurance map as the First Baptist Church (Colored), its parenthetical used to differentiate between it and the anglo First Baptist Church on West Main. It is unlikely, however, that such a parenthetical would have been needed for any Lexingtonian then looking at the map for First African’s location in the East End suggested the racial identity of her members living in this southern city.

First African Baptist Church is, without a doubt, a Historic Structure representing a Historic Faith. And though the Baptists abandoned the building decades ago, those who love this structure have for it a Determined Future.

Front Doors of the First African
Baptist Church – Lexington, Ky.

A Historic Structure

Constructed in 1856 with the slave labor of its own membership, the significant architectural detail leaves no doubt that the structure’s design was prepared with great thought and attention. First African is described in the National Register as a “good example of a mid-nineteenth century Italianate style Protestant chapel,” though the windows on the eastern façade (when uncovered) are said to have a Gothic appearance.

In 1926, the Parish House was added in the Collegiate Tudor style on the western side of the old church. Also added to the façade of the church in the 1920s was the “colossal stone portico with four widely spaced Tuscan columns … across the front with a flat entablature.”

The interior’s description in its National Register application predates its conversion to the daycare center of Central Christian Church. This present use has converted the sanctuary into a gymnasium with basketball goals, toys, and cots. The description from 1986:

A well-proportioned rectangular hall, it is distinguished by a classical Georgian cornice. The most striking feature is the large mural of Jesus christ as a shepherd rescuing a stray lamb from the precarious edge of a cliff high over a river (presumably Jordan). It is flanked by red draperies and tall unfluted Corinthian columns. Similar red curtains protect the baptismal pool at the southwest corner of the sanctuary, where the sacred ceremony of total immersion takes place. In the opposite corner is the raised seating of the choir, whose musical participation is of paramount importance in the services. The walls are painted to resemble stone in soft beige tones, and the opalescent-glass windows cast pleasing soft colors over them.

Many of these interior features were removed when the FABC departed the location for Price Road in 1987.

A Historic Faith

Though the building itself was erected in the mid-19th century, the history of the congregation dates back to the prior century. Peter Durrett, a slave who came across the mountains from Virginia in 1781 with his master and the Traveling Church. Known as “Uncle Peter” or “Old Captain,” Durrett was an able preacher just like his master Lewis Craig,

In fact, Durrett had previously scouted the path and destinations the Travelling Church would take into Kentucky. This assigned task by his master revealed a great deal about Durrett’s character and intelligence, and the respect he garnered from all those – black and white – in that group of sojourners.

In 1790, Durrett established his own congregation in Lexington in what was easily the first black congregation west of the Alleghenies. When Durrett died in 1823, he left behind a strong church and a historic legacy.

London Ferrill, the second minister, assumed the pastorate upon the death of Durrett and remained as leader of the flock until his own death in 1854. During the time, he would baptize over 5,000 souls to Jesus Christ. He brought his church into the fold of the Elkhorn Baptist Association in 1824.

Ferrill was highly respected by all races, much like his predecessor. When some in the church sought to have him removed over a churchly matter, they attempted to utilize a state law requiring slaves freed from other states to stay no longer than 90 days in Kentucky. Ferrill’s friends in Frankfort passed special  legislation granting him the permission to stay here permanently.

During the 1833 cholera epidemic, Ferrill stayed in Lexington (one of only three ministers to do so during the epidemic) to pastor his congregation, administer medicine, and bury the dead.

He was so well respected by all peoples of Lexington that his funeral was the largest attended in the city’s history, a claim not to be eclipsed until the 1852 funeral of Henry Clay.*

* This funeral factoid is told in one of two ways, with the runner-up to Clay being either Durrett or London Ferrill, the second minister of First African. Either way, it evinces the significant role this church played in the community.

A Determined Future

Rendering of Restored FABC with Addition
Photo: First African Foundation

Yvonne Giles, a local historian and expert on the East End, emphasized the importance of interpreting First African within the neighborhood as she repeated that it was “not just a church, but a community center.” It was the gathering place for generations of the East End and African-American communities of Lexington.

When the congregation departed in 1986, Central Christian purchased the structure and found utility in it. It is altogether possible that the historic church could have been demolished in the late 1980s in favor of a surface parking lot were it not for Central’s intervention. In the 2010s, Central Christian has sought to unload some of its surplus property and for a time the First African Foundation was under contract to acquire the old church at Short and DeWeese and convert it back into a community center. The Foundation intended to restore the old sanctuary as well as the circa 1926 Collegiate Tudor addition. The complex would “include a theater space with 300 to 350 seats, conference rooms, exhibit areas and space for music education.” Unfortunately, this worthy cause failed due to a want of funds.

But a different future for the historic structure emerged in October 2017, with the announcement that Zeff Maloney was purchasing the structure from Central Christian with the intent of redeveloping it into a commercial space. Maloney has previously turned around the old Protestant Infirmary just a block away.

Maloney plans to “bring [First African] back to its former glory” according to his interview with the Herald-Leader. I, for one, can’t wait to see it!

Bio of London Ferrill; First African Foundation; Lexington Herald-Leader; NRHP; Owenton News Herald

This post was updated on October 6, 2017, to revise the “Determined Future” section to reflect changes to the First African Foundation’s progress and the acquisition of the property by Mr. Maloney 

Last Week’s #ThrowbackThursday a Clue to this Week’s Blue Grass Trust deTour of First African Baptist Church

Last Week’s #TBT Photo

The Streetsweeper successfully guessed that a connection might lie between last week’s #TBT post and this week’s Blue Grass Trust deTour of the First African Baptist Church.

I had significantly cropped the contest photo, displayed above, from the original. In so doing, I actually masked the church from view. In the foreground is a Sunday School class from what was known in its day as the First Baptist Church (Colored) while the background showed the streetscape of Short Street ca. 1911 looking west from Deweese Street. At the time it was highly residential and quite different from its present form.

The uncropped photo follows after the jump.

1911 Photo of First African Baptist Church Sunday School – Lexington, Ky.
Photo: University of Kentucky.

The uncropped photo also shows the church as it originally appeared, prior to the 1926 Collegiate Tudor addition.

Further back in history, this congregation was the largest in the Commonwealth. The church acquired the property in 1833 and the extant structure was erected in 1856. But the congregation itself traces its roots back to 1790 and its first minister, Peter Durrett.

To learn more about this beautiful piece of Lexington’s East End history (and how you can help preserve her), join the Blue Grass Trust deTour tomorrow evening (that’s Wednesday at 5:30). More details are available on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/bgtdetours/events.

Also, be sure to check out Merlene Davis’ column which appeared in today’s Lexington Herald-Leader, “Efforts continue to purchase Lexington’s historic First African Baptist Church.”