As the University of Kentucky has grown, several nearby neighborhoods have been swallowed by the expanding campus. Such was the fate of Adamstown, a black community that for 71 years stood on the site of Memorial Coliseum.
Thanks to Kalvin Graves, a 2010 UK history graduate, and Yvonne Giles, a prolific researcher of Lexington black history, Adamstown and its most famous resident, Pierre Whiting, will soon be memorialized with a UK historical marker.
Graves said he began researching Adamstown after discovering that his great-great-great grandfather, Lawson Graves, lived there in the late 1800s.
During that research, Graves discovered the story of Whiting, UK’s first black employee. Late in his 57-year career as a janitor, Whiting became a beloved source of UK oral history.
“He was like a folk hero,” said Graves, who is writing a book about Whiting. “He brought people together in a time of segregation.”
Adamstown began in 1872 when black laborers, many of them freed slaves, bought or rented homes from George M. Adams, who had moved to Lexington from Barbourville after the Civil War and bought 22 acres of the old city fairgrounds.
By 1880, the census recorded 65 black families in Adamstown, which ran along Winslow Street (Now Euclid Avenue and the Avenue of Champions) and Adams Street, which ran parallel just north of there from Rose Street to a little past what is now Martin Luther King Boulevard.
As with many black neighborhoods in Lexington before desegregation — and for some years afterward — Adamstown had little of the basic infrastructure found in white neighborhoods. Because blacks had few good job opportunities and faced discrimination, most were poor.
By the early 1900s, UK officials had their eye on Adamstown.
The Lexington Herald quoted J.H. Kastle, dean of the College of Agriculture, in April 1914 as saying he “thought Adamstown in general was a disgrace to the city and should be condemned.” The year before, UK had asked the General Assembly for money to buy Adamstown, but the request was denied.
In August 1914, the Lexington Leader reported that Patrick Devereaux, with the encouragement of UK President Henry S. Barker, “has practically completed plans for the complete elimination of Adamstown and Winslow Street as a colored section.” He planned to redevelop the area “into a high-class residence district, with modern public improvements and restrictions.”
The Leader said Devereaux’s plan called for moving the black residents’ frame homes to an unspecified location “upon roomy lots with a good street and sidewalks, establishing a new colored community under much better conditions than it has been possible to accomplish in Adamstown.”
But most Adamstown residents stayed, at least until UK started buying land there in the 1920s. One early purchase, in 1923, was Consolidated Baptist Church, which stood about where Jewell Hall was until it was demolished in 2014 to make way for new residence halls.
Consolidated had been formed from the 1896 merger of Rose Street Baptist (founded 1885) and Macedonia Baptist. As late as 1908, the church held mass baptisms in a pond that was then on campus. Consolidated rebuilt on South Upper Street, where it remained until building a new church on Russell Cave Road in 2003.
By the 1940s, UK was finishing its purchases of Adamstown property to build a new “field house” to replace the circa 1924 Alumni Gymnasium. Memorial Coliseum opened in 1950 and was home to the Wildcats basketball team until Rupp Arena was finished in 1976. (Rupp Arena’s huge parking lot, which the city plans to redevelop, prompted demolition of another prominently black neighborhood on South Hill, but that’s another story.)
One of the last UK purchases in Adamstown, for $1,800 in 1943, was the home of Pierre Whiting, who became one of UK’s longest-serving employees and was known to generations of UK students as “Dean” Whiting.
Born in Woodford County in 1861, Whiting was living in Adamstown by 1880. He told of carrying water for bricklayers for UK’s Main Building in 1882. He was hired as a janitor at UK in 1888. By the 1930s, it became a ritual for students working on the Kentucky Kernel to interview Whiting every few years about his memories of university history. Much of his career was spent in the old White Hall, then a dormitory, and the administration building, where he got to know the first president, James K. Patterson.
Whiting retired in 1945 and died in April 1949 — a month after UK admitted its first black student, Lyman T. Johnson, after a landmark court case.