Before the Civil War, it was one of the South’s largest slave markets and a place where enslaved African Americans who disobeyed their masters were brought to be tied to a post and whipped.
In 1920, it was the scene of a deadly race riot. Six people were killed and 50 wounded when National Guardsmen fired on a mob of thousands who were trying to lynch a black man on trial for the murder of a white girl.
For more than a century, it was the site of not one but two statues of Confederate generals, John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge. The statues were erected decades after the Civil War as if to say, the Confederacy may be gone but white supremacy endures.
But Lexington’s historic courthouse square now seems like a much different place — a place, as Mayor Jim Gray said, that “welcomes everyone.”
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At a ceremony Tuesday attended by more than 150 community leaders and citizens of both races, the old Fayette County Courthouse square was officially given a new life. The place has been beautifully restored and, many people hope, redeemed of some historical baggage.
The ceremony marked completion of a $32 million renovation of the 120-year-old former courthouse, which had been gutted by a brutal 1960 “renovation” and then neglected and finally shuttered after the courts moved to new buildings in 2002.
Project manager Holly Wiedemann’s team cleaned a century’s worth of grime from the beautifully carved limestone walls, replaced the roof and restored details such as the dome clocks and copper weather vane. The interior dome, which featured some of Lexington’s first electric lights, is breathtaking once again.
Architects re-imagined the interior as event and entertainment space, a visitors center and offices for the Breeders’ Cup organization. Those uses will both welcome the public and provide income for the building’s ongoing operation and maintenance.
This Richardsonian Romaneque “temple of justice” — as Lexington’s Morning Herald described it in a 1900 headline — is now a civic asset rather than a vacant, crumbling liability. It is a beautiful landmark ready for another century of community service.
Gray and the Urban County Council deserve a lot of credit for the political courage and leadership it took to create what we now see on the courthouse square — and even more credit for what we do not see: the statues of the Confederate generals.
A little more than a year ago, the statues were peacefully removed. They now stand in the Lexington Cemetery, near the graves of the men they depict. If you want to see them, they are a short drive down Main Street. But they are no longer symbols of oppression in the public square.
“A place that in the past often held difficult and troubling memories is now a place where all people — all people — can go to create memories,” Gray said in his remarks Tuesday. “In many respects, today’s re-dedication represents our city’s renaissance, a renaissance of both spirit and place.”
DeBraun Thomas, a musician and leader of the Take Back Cheapside movement that worked with city officials to get the statues moved, agreed. After the ceremony, he mentioned a more positive association the old courthouse has for local African Americans.
The building’s structural brick, including beautifully crafted arches, was done by a local firm owned by two black masons, Henry Tandy and Albert Byrd. Tandy’s son, Vertner Woodson Tandy, was a teenager then. He would grow up to become the first registered black architect in New York and a founder of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, whose members would later include the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
“I think that this is an opportunity for our city to be able to move forward together while acknowledging the past,” Thomas said. “There were lots of things that happened in this courthouse, good and bad, that we have an opportunity to reshape. We can decide how our city is represented.”
Indeed we can. Lexington has a rich and colorful history that can be either imprisoning or empowering, depending on how we choose to represent it. In that regard, this landmark reborn is a big step forward.