Merlene Davis: Help is needed in identifying historic photos of Lexington's black community

An undated photo of a group of Shriners from the Dr. T.T. Wendell Collection at the Kentucky Historical Society needs identification from the public. Photo provided
An undated photo of a group of Shriners from the Dr. T.T. Wendell Collection at the Kentucky Historical Society needs identification from the public. Photo provided

Dr. Thomas Tyler Wendell was a medical doctor and a pharmacist in Lexington from the turn of the last century until his retirement in 1952. He was involved in a host of social, civic, educational and religious activities also.

He left behind a collection of documents and photographs that offer an extensive look into the lives of black people during that time.

The problem is, while the documents, manuscripts and other records are pretty much self-explanatory, the photographs give very little indication of the history they are trying to convey to those of us less familiar with their settings.

Who are all those black Shriners and where exactly had they gathered for that meeting?

And where did the play, in which the first act began in what appears to be Egypt and traveled through slavery to a contemporary America, take place?

To fill in as many of those blanks as possible, the Kentucky Historical Society is hosting "Piecing Together History: Dr. T.T. Wendell and Kentucky's African-American Community," from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 9.

And Cheri Daniels, senior librarian, would love for people to come and see the exhibit and, "If they see people they know, they can write it down."

About 95 percent of the photographs will be online by Saturday, she said.

"They can click on the picture of Dr. Wendell and get a thumbnail view of the photos. But if they click on the photos, they will get a comment section, too."

KHS wants "to encourage dialogue so that we can learn how the community developed," Daniels said. "People can put that in context for us."

The KHS received the Wendell Collection in 1994, donated by attorney and former state Sen. Michael Moloney, who was the executor of the Wendell estate.

Moloney said his father, Richard Moloney, and Wendell had known one another for years and were photographed together when a new building at Eastern State Hospital was named for Wendell in 1953.

Wendell was born in Nashville in 1877, and attended Meharry Medical College, where he earned degrees in pharmacy and medicine. He moved to Henderson, Ky., and then to Lexington, where he practiced for 50 years until his death in 1953. In 1928, he was appointed by the governor to treat the black patients at Eastern State and served in that capacity for 20 years. He became known as a pioneer for Kentucky's mentally ill.

He also led the effort to build Dunbar High School in 1922.

His office was at 349 West Short Street, said Yvonne Giles, a local history buff. "But the building is no longer there."

Giles will conduct two workshops at KHS prior to the exhibition of the Wendell collection as part of the monthly Family History Workshops held on the second Saturday of each month. At 10:30 a.m., she will discuss her method of researching information about African Cemetery No. 2, and at 1:30 p.m., she'll talk about Lexington's Colored Fair, which was founded in 1869 and was a highly successful annual event.

Wendell served as treasurer of that group, and part of his collection contains original stock certificates which were sold to maintain the association that supported the fair.

"It is a wonderful collection," Giles said.

When it was donated, the collection was separated into papers and photographs, said KHS marketing coordinator Chelsea Compton. And while the papers and manuscripts were recorded, the photographs were recently rediscovered. They are now being documented and digitized.

"This is a knowledge sharing event," she said. "We want people to go through the photo collection. We know Dr. Wendell, but we really need help with a lot of the community events and where they were taken."

Anyone can call and schedule a viewing of the collection if they can't access the digital library or come on Saturday, Compton said.

The time frame for most of the unidentified photos is about 1910-40, Daniels said. While viewers may not have eyewitness information, they still could recognize the photos from their own family collections or from organizations.

"We know there are some from Constitution School" in Lexington, she said. "Maybe we can get local historians interested."

The collection contains the only known photograph of Lucy Murphy, wife of jockey Isaac Murphy, Daniels said. "But we can't find a connection between Dr. Wendell and the Murphys," she said.

It is an intriguing take on a connect-the-dots puzzle that can reveal another piece of Lexington's black history that has been overlooked.


The Kentucky Historical Society is hosting two workshops on Feb. 9, and an opportunity to identify photographs in the Thomas Tyler Wendell Collection

When: 10:30 a.m.: "Finding African Cemetery No. 2,"; 12:30 p.m.: "The Colored Fair - What was that?" 2 to 4 p.m.: "Piecing Together History: Dr. T.T. Wendell and Kentucky's African-American Community."

Where: Kentucky Historical Society, Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History, 100 W. Broadway, Frankfort.

Information: Call (502)564-1792 ext. 4504, or visit