Together Lexington, a group of 17 business and community leaders, has been sponsoring a project that will result in a series of downtown Lexington interpretive signs. The signage project offers a new narrative – a way of understanding and representing African-American history in downtown Lexington. The twelve signs, with narrative and images, will be part of a walkable tour of about an hour. More detailed information will be offered via the web on the Together Lexington website: togetherlexington.com.
The project grew out of a series of “courageous conversations” last year. Members of the planning committee include local community members and activists, a member of Bluegrass Trust leadership as well as a LFUCG councilmember. University of Kentucky members on the committee were Drs. Terry Birdwhistle, Randolph Hollingsworth and Gerald Smith.
The trail will celebrate African-American heritage and allow for locals and visitors alike to discover those people and places in downtown Lexington that changed history in advancing equality. The planning group developed three main themes and eras that help define the content of the signs:
- Frontier/Settlement Period (1782-1865)
- Post Slavery and Jim Crow Era (1865-1950s)
- Black Freedom Struggles (1950s-present)
Some of the signs contain information pertinant to all three eras. All the signs give some biographical information and refer to an historically significant place in downtown Lexington. The twelve signs are currently being designed and they will be displayed at the Roots & Heritage Festival this fall. The signs feature the following people and topics:
- Churches – throughout all three eras – starting with Peter “Old Captain” Durrett who moved to Lexington with his wife and began holding services in his cabin at Maxwell Spring in 1790. This became the First African Baptist Church, the first black congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains and the third oldest black congregation in the U.S.
- Free Black Entrepreneurs (Frontier/Settlement and pre-Civil War), the South Hill neighborhood included free African-Americans who were successful business people – such as Samuel and Daphney Oldham, Michael and Hannah Clark, Rev. James Turner, Billy and Hannah Tucker, and Rolley Blue.
- Slavery and Slave Trade in Lexington, focusing on the role Lexington played in the international business of the slave trade and the many jails in the downtown area.
- Charlotte Dupuy (c.1787—c.1866), wife of Aaron Dupuy who was enslaved on the Henry Clay estate, sued Clay for her freedom. She lost the case, but finally he freed her and her children in the 1840s. Her husband did not gain his freedom until Clay’s death.
- Alfred Russell (1817-1884), enslaved from birth he and his mother were educated then freed and sent to Liberia in the 1830s to serve as teachers and missionaries. He grew up there to be an important planter, minister and politician. He was elected vice-president of Liberia in 1881 and then served as president from 1883-84.
- Empowerment through Learning (all three eras), highlighting the fact that many schools were established in Lexington for blacks. After 1865, four free schools were established and by the 1950s high schools were integrated – but many lower schools remained effectively segregated until a 1971 lawsuit forced the city to plan better for full integration of all public schools.
- Mary Ellen Britton – civil rights pioneer (1855-1925). Born a free person of color, she was an educator, orator and leader of many social reforms, including enfranchisement of women. She went back to school to be trained as a doctor and became the first woman licensed to practice medicine in Lexington.
- The Jacksons, Community Leaders: Jordan C. Jackson Jr. (1848-1918) and wife E. Belle Mitchell Jackson (1848-1942), focusing on their community activism and business success despite segregation and daily threats of violence.
- Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin (1855-1900), a journalist and lawyer who was murdered for his role in championing equality at the voting booth during voter registrations in October 1900.
- Lunch counter sit-ins (1950s-60s), large marches and peaceful sit-ins in downtown Lexington stores such as S.S. Kresge’s or Woolworth’s led to integration of most lunch counters by August of 1960.
- Women of the Movement (Voices in the Black Freedom Struggle), focusing on the collaborative work by black clubwomen including CORE President Julia Etta Lewis and NAACP President Louise Grevious.
Watch for more information coming as Together Lexington rolls out this exciting initiative. You can tour the downtown with an out-of-town colleague next fall – or include the Lexington African-American Heritage Trail in your syllabus as an extra-credit opportunity for your students to learn more about the town in which they live.