Tom Eblen

Ex-slave helped build Lexington courthouse in 1899. Now Henry Tandy is honored there.

Lexington’s Courthouse Square, the newly renovated old Fayette County Courthouse, unveiled a wall panel Wednesday telling the story of Henry A. Tandy, a former slave who became one of Kentucky’s most successful black entrepreneurs . His masonry company built the courthouse’s infrastructure in 1899.

Tandy came to Lexington from Montgomery County as a newly freed teenager after the Civil War. A masonry company he and Albert Byrd founded eventually employed as many as 50 workers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They built many well-known Central Kentucky buildings, including Miller Hall at the University of Kentucky. Through his business and good real estate investments, Tandy became one of Kentucky’s wealthiest black businessmen..

Tandy’s son, Vertner Woodson Tandy, went to Cornell University and was a founder of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, whose members later included the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Vertner Tandy then became the first black registered architect in New York.

Before the panel was unveiled, Vice Mayor Steve Kay paid tribute to Tandy and noted the tragic role Lexington’s historic courthouse square and adjacent Cheapside Park had played as one of the South’s largest slave markets before the Civil War.

To underscore that sad legacy, several “witnesses” read from wills filed in old Fayette County deed books explaining how black people were sold and passed down in white families along with furniture, horses and other possessions. Among the readers were P.G. Peeples, president and CEO of the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County; Anthany Beatty, Lexington’s first black police chief; his wife, Eunice Beatty, a retired college professor; and Transylvania University artists and professors Kremena Todorova and Kurt Gohde.

“We should never turn a blind eye to the horrors that took place on these grounds,” Kay told a crowd of about 100 people who gathered for the panel’s unveiling.

After many years of neglect, the old courthouse was renovated and reopened last year as restaurant, bar and event space. It also houses the Lexington visitors’ center and offices for VisitLex, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau, and the Breeders’ Cup organization.

Tom Eblen, the Lexington Herald-Leader’s metro/state columnist since 2008, writes opinion and feature columns. A seventh-generation Kentuckian, he was the Herald-Leader’s managing editor from 1998-2008. Eblen previously worked for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Associated Press. He is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame.
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