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Trail speaks of roots and heritage

There's a lot more to Lexington history than Henry Clay, Mary Todd Lincoln and Man o' War.

Take, for example, the contributions African-Americans have made to the city's growth and development since the very beginning.

This is a good weekend to learn some of that history, as the east end will be alive with the annual Roots and Heritage Festival.

For a good introduction, consider walking, biking or driving the African American Heritage Trail in downtown Lexington, which includes 10 sites that have been touchstones in the community since the days of slavery.

The Heritage Trail was developed by Doris Wilkinson, a Lexington native who in 1958 became the first African-American woman to earn an undergraduate degree from the University of Kentucky and in 1967 became the first to be hired as a full-time faculty member.

Wilkinson, a sociologist, got the idea for the trail after spending several summers at Harvard University.

TODAY IN LEXGO: More on the Roots and Heritage Festival

"What made Boston and Cambridge stand out was that they had incorporated ethnic diversity and history into their city's public face," Wilkinson said. "I thought, what is here that would link the growth and history of Lexington to African-Americans? How can we further facilitate the image of Lexington as a progressive city with a rich ethnic heritage?"

Wilkinson developed the trail and put together a pamphlet in 2000 that was quickly embraced by the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. Copies can be downloaded from the bureau's Web site, Wilkinson hopes to add sites to the trail and encourage its use in education.

African-Americans make up only 13.8 percent of Lexington's population, according to census figures. But before the Civil War, it was twice that. In 1860, one in four Lexington residents was a slave, and Fayette was one of Kentucky's largest slave-holding counties.

Lexington also was one of the South's largest slave markets. Thousands of African-Americans were sold on the block at Cheapside, near the old Fayette County Courthouse. And a whipping post was erected there in 1847, where slaves could be punished for such infractions as disobeying their masters or violating the 7 p.m. curfew.

That history wasn't acknowledged with a state historical marker until five years ago. Cheapside is one stop on the Heritage Trail. Want to learn more? The 1955 book Lincoln and the Bluegrass by Lexington lawyer William Townsend includes a vivid and well-documented account of the ugliest chapter in Lexington's history.

Like at Cheapside, nothing but markers remain at some other sites on the trail — the offices of pioneering black physicians on North Broadway, the long-gone pond off Bolivar Street where baptisms were held, and the home of Isaac Murphy, a jockey who won the Kentucky Derby three times.

The same is true of two more sites Wilkinson plans to add to the trail: the Mammoth Insurance Co. on De weese Street, and the former home of Consolidated Baptist Church. The old church on South Upper was recently demolished to make way for a fast-food restaurant.

A marker about the Mammoth Insurance Co. was placed across the street from its former offices at the site of another stop on the trail, the Polk-Dalton Infirmary, where several African-American doctors practiced when Deweese Street was the hub of segregated Lexington's black community. The infirmary building now houses offices of the Urban League.

The other sites on the Heritage Trail are old African-American churches scattered throughout downtown. They give a sense of the importance of religion in the community, as well as the close proximity in which Lexington's black and white residents lived and worshiped in the 19th century despite their separate social structures.

"The churches were sort of havens, a refuge from segregation," Wilkinson said. "That's why they dominate the trail. They were the major institutions."

The oldest congregation is Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church, which was organized in 1790 by slave Peter Duerett. The church has been at its West Maxwell Street site since 1822.

St. Paul AME church on North Upper was built in 1826, right behind fashionable Gratz Park. The current building is the result of a 1906 remodeling.

Main Street Baptist Church was built in 1870 next door to the house where Mary Todd lived for seven years before she married Abraham Lincoln in 1839. The original church's cornerstone is part of a wall beside the current sanctuary.

The beautiful East Second Street Christian Church building has stood on Constitution Street since 1880. Another handsome 19th-century building on the trail is the old First Baptist Church sanctuary at the corner of Short and Deweese streets.

Of course, there's a lot more African-American history beyond downtown.

There are more than a dozen rural black communities in Fayette County such Jimtown, Uttingertown and Bracktown.

There were other notable figures, such as the Chilesburg-born Jimmy Winkfield, one of the early 20th century's greatest jockeys. He rode for the czar in Russia and retired in France. His fascinating life story was told in the 2006 book Black Maestro, by New York Times racing writer Joe Drape.

If you have a couple of hours free this weekend, the African American Heritage Trail is a good place to start.

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