It's been 50 years since volunteers descended upon the deeply segregated South to register black voters, a right a majority of blacks in the Deep South had been deprived of for more than a century.
The "freedom summer" of 1964 was a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, as voter-registration drives brought a national spotlight to the plight of disenfranchised blacks and led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting.
A recently unearthed piece of Lexington lore reveals blacks in Kentucky were fighting for the same privileges nearly a century before.
On July 4, 1867, an estimated crowd of 10,000 people, comprised mostly of blacks, participated in one of the largest civil rights gatherings in Kentucky until Martin Luther King Jr's march in Frankfort on March 5, 1964.
Tom Law, project director of the Kentucky Archaeology & Heritage Series, said he uncovered these details while doing research for Davis Bottom: Rare History, Valuable Lives, the sixth episode in the Kentucky Archaeology & Heritage documentary series, which premiered last fall.
"Immediately after learning about this, I was struck with the main question: How in that day and age, did you rally 10,000 people, a number greater in that time than the population of all blacks in Lexington and almost all blacks in Fayette County, to gather at the Fourth of July on that time, at that day?" Law said.
"The communications networks, we're just scratching the surface how extensive they were in being able to pull off this incredibly successful event."
Yvonne Giles, local historian and director of the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum, said this long-forgotten event highlights the long struggle for equal rights for blacks.
"It was the precursor of our modern civil rights movement," she said. "People seem to think the only time a march has occurred was in the 1960s. A hundred years prior to that it happened. We are repeating our history truly. None of us knew about this growing up. We just assumed our modern civil rights movement was new. And it isn't. It truly isn't and once you understand that, we have been dealing with this same issue for over a hundred years."
Most of the details about the gathering are gleaned from two reports: An 875-word article that appeared in The Lexington Observer & Reporter on July 6, 1867, and a 12,000-word article that appeared on the front page of the July 8, 1867 edition of The Cincinnati Commercial, which included speeches given at the event verbatim.
The Lexington paper downplayed the importance of the event, remarking the large crowd was "quite imposing to eyes unused to such a scene."
Despite morning showers, the streets of downtown Lexington were "filled with masses of children ... determined to have a Fourth of July," according to the Cincinnati Commercial. A brass band of 20 pieces headed a procession of Union Army soldiers, veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops, and carriages with local dignitaries. The procession wound its way through downtown, stopping to formally honor members standing in front of the buildings of such organizations as the Soldier's League, Freedman's Bureau, Colored Ladies of Lexington, Masons, Odd Fellows and several chapters of Benevolent Societies, the newspaper stated.
The honored members and crowd joined the parade until the "procession was over a mile long," culminating in a woods just off Harrodsburg Pike south of Lexington, it said.
A speech by Willard Davis, a Republican attorney, civil rights advocate and land speculator, exemplified the sentiments of the day. Under the theme "Colored Suffrage," Davis began by reflecting upon the self-evident truths codified in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: "all men are created equal," and the inalienable right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," the transcripts of the speech were quoted as saying in The Cincinnati Commercial.
Davis then summarized the history of slavery and the impact of the Civil War before attacking two state laws that abridged the Civil Rights Act of 1866, federal legislation that attempted to define U.S. citizenship and provide all citizens with "equal protections" under the law.
Davis decried a state law that prohibited blacks from testifying in state court cases "where a white person is a party concerned." This law left blacks highly vulnerable to fraud, crime and unwarranted arrest. Davis then denounced a state law that prohibited black men from voting, The Cincinnati Commercial wrote.
Giles said this event is revealing about a generation of blacks often viewed solely as uneducated.
"It takes a lot of planning to get 10,000 people organized and have speeches and marches and get the word out," she said. "For them to be that organized is terribly remarkable and says a lot about ancestries whom most of us have been told to characterize as illiterate, and most of them didn't have formal education, but they knew enough to say 'this is important for us and we have to make the march.' "
The advisory panel for The Kentucky Archaeology & Heritage Series, scholars from state agencies and academic institutions, recognized the significance of the Fourth of July event and authorized funds to commission an artist's rendering to illustrate the landmark gathering.
Artist Susan A. Walton, a Hudson, Fla., resident, was selected to create a work based on the production team's archival research, the research and insights of Giles, and the vivid descriptions published in The Cincinnati Commercial.
Entitled Fourth of July, 1867, Lexington, Kentucky, the piece depicts the scene from behind the speaker's platform, focusing attention on the size and scope of the crowd, which gathered on that day.
Law wants to spread awareness about this instrumental civil rights event in Kentucky's history.
"As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the summer of freedom, it is important to realize all of this didn't just materialize out of thin air," he said. "It was the efforts of these first two generations of African-Americans and civil rights leaders that built the foundation for the modern civil rights movement, and that movement allowed all Americans to celebrate and join in on the birth of the nation on the Fourth of July."
Sam Osborne: (859) 231-3308. Twitter: @samo430.