Community leaders from Lexington's historic and more recent past were honored Sunday as the Kentucky Historical Society dedicated a new marker for the Old Episcopal Burying Ground on Third Street.
When the Rev. London Ferrell died in 1854 and was buried there, thousands turned out to mourn him.
Many probably were members of his congregation at the African Baptist Church in Lexington, which he had built into the largest in the state with 1,820 members. But there undoubtedly were some among the 5,000 mourners who came because of Ferrell's dedication to the community.
Twenty-one years before, when cholera swept through the city, Ferrell's wife, Rodah, was one of those who died. Despite the loss and the danger, Ferrell stayed in the city, perhaps one of only three clergymen to remain to minister to the sick and dying. The others were the Rev. Ed McMahon, a Catholic priest, and the Rev. Benjamin Bosworth Smith of Christ Church, the Episcopal church on Market Street. Smith's wife, along with about a third of his congregation, also died.
Historical accounts indicate that as many as 500 of the city's 7,000 residents fell victim to the disease, which returned in 1849.
In honor of his service, Ferrell was buried in Christ Church's cemetery. He is the only known black person buried there, amongst some of the oldest and most prominent citizens at the time, including a handful of Revolutionary War soldiers and soldiers from the War of 1812.
On Sunday, Christ Church and the Kentucky Historical Society paid tribute to Ferrell and his companions again, blessing the marker that draws attention to the significance of the cemetery, which has been restored and now includes a thriving community garden plot next door, named for Ferrell.
The Very Rev. Carol L. Wade, dean and rector of Christ Church Cathedral, said the ceremony was meant to remember those buried there and to thank those multitudes of volunteers who, over the years, helped to bring back a piece of history that was nearly lost.
Mayor Jim Gray said the ongoing revitalization of the city's East End can be traced to the spark from clearing the grounds.
"So much of it really did get started right here," Gray said.
Purchased by Christ Church in 1832, the cemetery was in use until 1870 and about 600 people — artists, builders, educators, lawyers and clergy — are thought to have been buried there, including more than 50 killed in the cholera epidemics and possibly deposited in mass graves.
In 1867, a Gothic cottage was built on the burial grounds to house a sexton and caretaker. But by the early 1900s, the cemetery had fallen into neglect, said Bob Voll, chairman of the Old Episcopal Burying Ground board. Efforts were made in the 1940s, the 1970s and the 1980s to restore the grounds and map the grave sites.
In the 1990s two strong-willed, community-minded women, Lucy Crump and Carole Pettit, began a sustained effort to finally get it done.
"They set a goal to restore the cottage and grounds and make them a community asset," Voll said. "Because of their vision and the continuing work and contributions of many dedicated volunteers, the grounds are now fundamentally restored and are available for all to use and enjoy."
Crump, known as the "Mayor of Gratz Park," died in 1998; Pettit, the wife of former Mayor Foster Pettit, died in 2002.
"I'm sure Carole Pettit is looking down on us and smiling today," said Carolyn Ware, a church member who has done much historical research about the site.
"When Carole started, you could not see the cottage from here," Voll said, standing near the marker along Third Street. They, along with an army of volunteers from the church and community, cleared brush and removed about 250 trees, he said.
They wanted, he said, to establish a "community gathering place with a garden atmosphere," one that could present the history of the grounds and provide "a place for personal growth and community reconciliation."
The manifestation of those efforts is clear: the London Ferrell Community Garden draws 300 volunteers a year to grow and distribute fresh fruit and vegetables to those in the neighborhood in need.
The garden, which has grown to 40 plots in its fourth year, will be the focal point of community outreach, he said. Fruit trees, blackberries, blueberries and elder berries planted along the fence line will bear fruit for years.
"The army (of volunteers) still comes," Voll said. The site, he said, "had a wonderful way of drawing people together."