Merlene Davis: Efforts continue to purchase Lexington's historic First African Baptist Church

Kevin Harris
Kevin Harris

When William Thomas died unexpectedly in April, efforts he had spearheaded to buy the former First African Baptist Church at Short and Deweese streets slowed noticeably.

But those efforts are moving forward again with two events this week.

Wednesday, local historian Yvonne Giles will conduct a walking tour of the area near the former church that she calls the First African meeting house. That, indeed, was part of its original purpose.

Giles, who is vice president of the First African Foundation, the group that is buying the building, said renovation plans include a theater space with 300 to 350 seats, conference rooms, exhibit areas and space for music education, which was the dream of Thomas, a former cellist and conductor.

"It has always been a meeting house," she said. "We're just reviving it and turning it back into a meeting house."

Records have revealed that the First General Association of Colored Baptist in Kentucky met in 1869 in that building. Later it was the home of the first black YMCA. There were concerts and lectures, and even a school was house in the building, which was built by slaves in 1856, she said.

"Madam C.J. Walker came to make a presentation in 1916," Giles said, adding that Walker, the first black millionaire in the United States, stayed with the Henry Tandy family while in Lexington. Tandy was a contractor and builder who, with partner Albert Byrd, built the old courthouse on Main Street. Tandy is thought to have been the richest black person in Kentucky at that time.

Giles' tour is a part of the Bluegrass Trust for Historic Preservation's BGT deTour series. She will lead a short tour highlighting how Short Street once separated blacks on one side and whites on the other.

One black man who lived on Short, Harry Slaughter, had been caught, along with several others, trying to escape slavery. "The media said they all had been hung," Giles said, "but a prominent attorney saved him and the governor pardoned him.

"He came back to Lexington and married the woman he was in love with," she said. "He died in 1906."

Although the Central Christian Day Care Center is housed in the historic building, tours will be conducted inside after it closes for the day, with renderings showing what is being proposed for renovations.

Those who attend will be invited to continue discussions by gathering at The Jax restaurant, 101 West Short Street.

On Friday, jazz pianist and Lexington native Kevin Harris will headline a benefit concert with local musicians at the Lexington Public Library on Main Street.

Harris graduated from Bryan Station High School and Morehead State University before earning a master's degree from the New England Conservatory in Boston.

His mother, Margaret Harris of Lexington, said her son never was forced to practice.

"He would play for hours," she said. "We would tell him he could not play past 11 o'clock on school nights and he couldn't get up and play before 5 a.m. A lot of the time, right at 5 a.m., he would start."

He teaches piano, jazz ensemble, summer theory classes and piano labs at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and he holds clinics for young people. He released an album, Museum Vol. 1 this year.

Joining Kevin Harris will be Cory Kennedy on keyboard; saxophonist Ray Mabson; vocalists Clay Coffey and Jessie Laine Powell; Michael Cruse on trumpet; pianist Charles Little; and drummer H.B. Nelson.

A reception will be held after the concert at Natasha's Bistro and Bar.

The foundation needs to raise about $360,000 by September in order to be granted another year's extension on the sale agreement of the historic building, Giles said. Two concerts have been held in Massachusetts in Thomas' honor, with the money donated to the foundation, and fundraising efforts continue there.

Although Thomas' death slowed the effort to buy the building, Giles is strong in her resolve to continue the effort.

"People are saying it is impossible," she said, "but I say oh, no. It is like eating the elephant one bite at a time.

"I'm going to keep knocking on doors until someone buys," she said. "Every $20 adds up."


The First African Foundation is sponsoring two fundraising events this week to help buy the building that once housed the First African Baptist Church at Short and Deweese streets. Donations will be solicited.

Walking tour: 5:30 p.m. Aug. 7 starting at the corner of Short and Deweese streets. Participants can tour the historic building. Discussion will follow at The Jax restaurant, 101 W. Short St.

Jazz concert: 6 p.m. Aug. 9. Lexington Public Library, Farish Theater. Reception will follow at Natasha's Bistro and Bar, 112 Esplanade Alley.

Information: Call (859) 684-2825 or (859) 270-3699.