Eblen: Churches join to honor former slave

HERALD-LEADER COLUMNISTFebruary 21, 2010 

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

Ferrill may have been the most famous man in Lexington you've probably never heard of.

Born into slavery in Virginia in 1789 and later freed, he was an influential preacher in the black community here. His funeral procession of nearly 5,000 people in 1854 was the second-largest the city had ever seen, after Henry Clay's two years earlier.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"They've taken better care of it than we ever have," Voll said.

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

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

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

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

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

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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