Megowan’s was a thriving business on North Limestone between Short and Barr streets in the 1800s, but many in Lexington have never heard about it.
That’s because Megowan’s was a slave jail, which held slaves and freed black men before they were sold into slavery. And it wasn’t the only business that profited from Lexington’s once thriving slave trade. There also was Robards slave jail and Pullum’s slave jail.
The former site of Megowan’s will soon have a new historical marker — one of 12 signs that will make up a self-guided African-American Heritage Trail.
The first sign — on the corner of Short and DeWeese street — was unveiled and dedicated Thursday, just ahead of this weekend’s Roots and Heritage festival. That marker celebrates the site of the First African Baptist Church, which was built in 1856 and was the first black congregation west of the Allegheny Mountains.
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The other signs will hopefully be installed by the end of September, said Ed Holmes, of EHI Consultants, the project manager. The $75,000 project was funded by Together Lexington, a group of 19 business and community leaders who held a series of meetings about race and other issues in 2017. No public money was used.
“It’s important that the full story of Lexington is told,” said Rufus Friday, publisher of the Herald-Leader and a Together Lexington partner. “Though they aren’t famous, these citizens were far from ordinary. Their extraordinary and selfless acts of courage and leadership should be known and appreciated. Understanding this history — good and bad — will help Lexington understand its past and move forward together in the future.”
A steering committee of historians, business and civic leaders met several times over the year to narrow down the locations and people included on the trail.
Local historian Yvonne Giles, who was on the steering committee, has done extensive research on black cemeteries in Lexington and Lexington’s black history. Giles said the group considered 22 potential sites.
“We also tried to keep the number of signs within a couple block radius,” Giles said.
If the self-guided tour is popular, it’s possible that more signs will be added if more money becomes available, Friday said. Most of the signs are in the downtown core.
“This is one of the most worthwhile and rewarding projects I’ve ever worked on,” Giles said.
The city agreed to allow the signs in the public right-of-way, and many private individuals agreed to have the signs in front of their homes or businesses, she said.
The signs highlight portions of Lexington’s black history, from slavery to the Jim Crow era to Civil Rights.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said Thursday the 12 signs are more than just history.
“It informs our present and our future,” Gray said.
The signs also tell a different story to visitors, he said. “We are saying this is a welcoming and inclusive community.”
The signs, designed by Solid Light of Louisville, include the story of R.C.O. Benjamin, the editor of the Lexington Standard who escorted black voters into a precinct in Irishtown in 1900, and was beaten by a poll worker. The poll worker was arrested for assault. When he got out of jail, he waited for Benjamin outside his home at 60 W. Main Street and shot him six times in the back.
The poll worker pleaded not guilty by self defense and the case was dismissed. The marker for Benjamin will be located in what is now Triangle Park.
Another marker tells the story of slave Charlotte Dupuy, who unsuccessfully sued Henry Clay for her freedom. Clay, who represented Kentucky in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House, eventually granted Dupuy and her daughter freedom in 1840. Dupuy’s son was not freed until 1844, the sign says. That marker will be in front of Henry Clay’s former law office on Mill Street.
Giles said during Thursday’s unveiling ceremony that many people don’t know these stories, which are painful to read.
“They are true,” she said.