Merlene Davis: Walking tour highlights seven areas crucial to Lexington's black history

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 22, 2011 

A lot of black history is woven throughout downtown Lexington, and if you don't mind a little exercise, you can check out much of it on foot.

According to the "African American Heritage Guide," published last year by the education committee of the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum and the Lexington Convention & Visitors Bureau, there are homes, buildings and even a hideout for runaway slaves all within walking distance of Main Street.

■ Start at the public square bounded by Short and Main streets, where one of the largest slave auctions in the nation thrived.

A historic marker, placed on Short Street in 2003 by Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, designates the Cheapside Auction Block as a major supplier of slaves being sold into the Deep South. The last slave sold there was in 1864, a year after the Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery had continued in Kentucky until the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1865.

■ Directly behind the marker is the Lexington History Museum, formerly the Fayette County Courthouse. The brick foundation of the courthouse was laid by a construction company owned by Henry Tandy and Albert Byrd. Tandy was reportedly the richest black man in Kentucky in about 1900.

■ Head south on Mill Street to 331 South Mill and you will see a duplex, one side of which was occupied by James and Arena Turner.

James Turner, a plasterer who bought his own freedom, became a minister at St. Paul AME Church, which was a safe haven on the Underground Railroad.

■ At 340 South Mill, Henry and Betty King raised their three children from 1867 to 1896. Henry King played a prominent role in founding the African Cemetery No. 2, and in establishing what became Kentucky State University in Frankfort.

■ Walk east on Maxwell Street to South Upper Street. Rolla and Rachel Blue lived at 346 South Upper. The home was built in 1816 and Rolla, a blacksmith and landowner, bought it in 1829. At his death, he asked that his property be sold to purchase the freedom of relatives.

■ Michael and Hannah Clarke built their home at 344 South Upper Street in 1818. Michael Clarke purchased his wife and son from their slave owner in 1804. Two other children were born free. He legally freed his wife in 1806 and his son in 1827, before dying in 1828.

■ Follow Maxwell east to South Limestone. Samuel and Daphney Harris Oldham lived at 245 South Limestone, which he built in 1835. Samuel Harris was a hairdresser and business owner who purchased his own freedom in 1826, and then the freedom of his wife and sons in 1830. He sold this house in 1839, and records a year later show he had bought the freedom of at least three other people.

There's much more black history in downtown Lexington. In addition, blacks who worked on horse farms established history in many surrounding towns.

Additional information will be available in a revised edition of the heritage guide in October at the Hathaway museum in the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center, 644 Georgetown Street. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.

More Central Kentucky bucket lists:

Merlene Davis is a Herald-Leader columnist. Her columns appear on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Contact her at (859) 231-3218.

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