William Thomas doesn't want Constitution Elementary School to fade from the memories of those students who attended there or be overlooked by those of us who didn't.
The building that once stood near Race and Corral streets and served black students during segregation has long since been torn down and built over. Thomas is working on a project to ensure that doesn't happen to the school's place in Lexington's history.
"The whole issue of segregation is extremely significant in this city," said Thomas, 62, a former student at Constitution. "A lot of folks would like to forget about it, but it, of course, served as a black institution.
"There were generations of folks who were served by that school. What was clearly different about it was that many of the teachers were members of First African Baptist Church, and they knew my parents."
Thomas laughed at the thought.
"That community and personal connection was powerful," he said.
Phaon Patton, co-chair of the project and a former Constitution student, put it a bit more succinctly. "If I did anything at school, it beat me home," she said, laughing. "It created an environment to learn."
Both Thomas and Patton serve on the First African Foundation Board, which is hoping to purchase and repurpose the former home of First African Baptist Church at East Short and Deweese streets. The Italianate-style structure is owned by Central Christian Church and is used as a day-care center.
The foundation's mission statement says the board wants to "develop a facility dedicated to presenting the lives of African-Americans in the Bluegrass." That would include exhibits, art galleries, a concert hall and rehearsal rooms.
Before that, though, Thomas is hoping to create and display a collection of items from the school during the 24th Annual Roots & Heritage Festival scheduled for Sept. 7-9 in downtown Lexington.
He also hopes to show architectural renderings of proposed renovations to the former church, an historic building which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
A relative of a former school librarian has a collection of items the board will examine, and Thomas is hoping that the Fayette County Schools administration will find information about the principals and teachers and will have photos of the building.
"We are hoping to display quite a few things," he said.
Thomas wants former students to search closets, attics and garages for Constitution memorabilia. There are plenty of students still around, including Lexington's fire chief, Keith Jackson. Thomas' father attended the school, as did Thomas and his siblings.
Thomas, a cellist who moved back to Lexington four years ago after teaching at Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts for 36 years, said the materials gathered would be copied, scanned or photographed.
"We need the memorabilia as soon as possible," he said. "We are late getting started. We have so many projects under way."
If you have anything related to Constitution, call Thomas at (859) 317-8683. He will take it from there.
"It was an institution that cared," Thomas said, adding that teachers would quietly help students whose families couldn't provide the basics. "It would be so easy to forget."