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