Merlene Davis: Former Lexington orphanage for black children can still have the power to nurture

Herald-Leader columnistNovember 16, 2013 

  • IF YOU GO

    The Robert H. Williams Cultural Center, formerly the Colored Orphan and Industrial Home, is hosting a banquet to honor not only the founding organization, but also the building at 644 Georgetown St., which is 100 years old.

    When: 6 p.m., Nov. 23.

    Where: Downtown Lexington Hilton, 369 W. Vine St.

    Cost: $50

    Tickets and information: Call (859) 299-5004.

It is not hard to miss the 100-year-old building at 644 Georgetown Street that once served as the only permanent home for hundreds of black children from Lexington and surrounding counties.

The former Colored Orphan Industrial Home, now the Robert H. Williams Cultural Center, sits back off the street. It appears as if it is sort of watching over the area, just as the black women who opened the orphanage on that site in 1894 did when they united to nurture black children who were the victims of a biting poverty caused by the death of at least one parent. The other orphanage in Lexington was for white children only.

To pass by without giving the building a second thought is to miss out on a lesson of how resourceful people can be when money is hard to come by. That's a lesson that could come in very handy today.

In 1892, 15 or 16 women formed the Ladies' Home Organization, and later opened the home, where orphaned and neglected black children were not only fed and cared for, but also taught academics and trade skills that would lead to their self-sufficiency. They learned sewing, tailoring, shoemaking, cooking and gardening skills, and all of them had to learn to read and write.

The women, led by Boyle County native Eliza Belle Mitchell Jackson, pinched pennies, held teas and solicited donations not only from black people but also from prominent white Lexingtonians, to rescue the children of a race that was only a couple of decades out of slavery and mostly illiterate.

With the help of Robert H. Fitzhugh, who had served in the Confederacy and who became the women's road into the white community locally and along the East Coast for donations, the group established an institution that extended from Georgetown Street to Newtown Pike, and from Ash to White streets.

A fatal fire in 1912, in which three girls were killed and the fire chief was injured, destroyed the main building, but not the home's mission. Within two weeks, the women had raised $1,000 to rebuild. A year later, the home was rebuilt. The 35-room building was rededicated in November 1913.

It is that rededication that is being celebrated on Nov. 23 at a banquet with guest speaker Lauretta Flynn Byars, who wrote a book about the orphanage in 1995. Byars lived in Lexington and worked at the University of Kentucky before moving to Texas, where she is vice president for student affairs and institutional relations at Prairie View A&M University.

Also, special recognition will be given to Betty A. Howard of Lexington, who lived in the orphanage from age 4 to 16, along with her five siblings. Howard and her husband, the Rev. Willie Howard, have adopted six children and nurtured about 240 children through foster care. They have one biological daughter.

Betty Howard said she was inspired by the care she received at the orphanage.

"This organization and this building are testaments to what ordinary individuals can do on their own," said Teresa Searcy, who has served on the board of directors since the 1980s. She now serves as chairwoman.

"This should stand as an inspiration for young people who sometimes think they don't have a purpose or who don't value their lives or existence," she said. "This could motivate them to higher aspirations."

The centennial celebration should serve as a wake-up call to the "need for rejuvenation of awareness of not only this building," said Delphine Ridgeway, secretary of the board, "but also for the whole history of the West End. If those 15 or 16 women back in 1892 could get together with little resources, why can't we?

"Every penny they had went into this home," she said. "If we had the same mentality and thought processes as they did, look at where we could be as a people."

In 1980, as the number of children served at the orphanage dwindled, the name was changed to the Robert H. Williams Center after the man who left a considerable amount of money to the organization after his death in 1956. It became a cultural center in 1988 when children were no longer residents.

For a time, agencies and organizations were housed in the building. After renovations closed the building in the mid-2000s, only the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum has had a permanent space there since the building reopened.

Searcy and Ridgeway would like to see other organizations that are focused on youth occupy available space in the building and bring it back to life.

The board is a private organization, receiving no government funding.

There are 12 volunteer board members who not only pay $50 a year to be members, but who also cut the grass, work in the administration of the building and take turns paying utility bills.

"We are dedicated folks," Searcy said. "These same people are incurring costs on a regular basis to keep it up."

The basement, with a full kitchen, and the first floor, where the board's office and the museum are, have been renovated. The second floor, while solidly constructed, has not been touched. There are remnants of its former glory, but that floor seriously needs renovation.

There are occasional thumps and unexplained security alarm breaches stemming from the basement, which Ridgeway believes are signs that the building has special protection.

"I've always said because the home has been here so long, there are angels watching over the building," she said, "much like those women did in the beginning."



If you go

The Robert H. Williams Cultural Center, formerly the Colored Orphan and Industrial Home, is hosting a banquet to honor not only the founding organization, but also the building at 644 Georgetown St., which is 100 years old.

When: 6 p.m., Nov. 23.

Where: Downtown Lexington Hilton, 369 W. Vine St.

Cost: $50

Tickets and information: Call (859) 299-5004.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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