One of Lexington's most significant black-history landmarks would become a concert hall, a cultural center and a museum if a new non-profit foundation can raise several million dollars to buy, restore and operate it.
The First African Foundation has reached a tentative agreement with Central Christian Church to buy the former First African Baptist Church building at the corner of Short and Deweese streets. A final agreement must be approved by Central Christian's leaders and congregation, said James Hodge, a church trustee. He declined to disclose the purchase price or terms.
William Thomas, a Lexington native who moved back in 2008 after retiring as music department chair at the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, said he was inspired to organize the effort after reading about the building's amazing history two years ago.
The Italianate-style sanctuary, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a handsome building. What makes it amazing is that most of the people who built and paid for it in the 1850s were slaves.
First African Baptist Church and Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church trace their roots to Peter Durrett, a slave who in 1790 started the first black church west of the Allegheny Mountains. Durrett died in 1823 and was succeeded by London Ferrill, a slave who gained his freedom and was widely respected by blacks and whites alike.
In 1833, Ferrill became a local hero when he risked his life to minister to victims of a cholera epidemic that killed 500 of Lexington's 7,000 residents. That same year, he moved his congregation to the corner of Short and Deweese. Construction of the present building began about 1850. Ferrill died in 1854, and his funeral procession attracted 5,000 mourners. The sanctuary was completed in 1856.
Ferrill was a powerful preacher who baptized thousands. Because slave families were often split up by sale, many walked miles each Sunday to attend services at First African Church — and have their only opportunity to see each other.
First African Baptist Church added a Tudor-style addition and a columned portico on the sanctuary in 1926. The congregation moved to Price Road in 1987 and sold its historic building to Central Christian. A child-care center now in the building would be relocated if the sale is approved, Hodge said.
Architect Gregory Fitzsimons, who developed a renovation plan for the foundation, said the building is in good condition. Still, it would take about $4 million buy, renovate and enlarge the building for the foundation's proposed uses. Thomas also wants to raise several million more dollars to operate and endow the building and programs.
The old sanctuary, now used as a gymnasium, would become a 400-seat concert hall. Thomas would like the proposed concert hall to host local musicians and visiting ensembles that highlight African-American music. One such group is the American Spiritual Ensemble, a Lexington-based international touring company founded by Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky's Opera Theatre program.
"It's something we would certainly consider," McCorvey said. "I was very impressed with the potential of what that facility could become. The church has a wonderful history. It's certainly worth preserving."
Thomas, who taught at Phillips Andover for 36 years, spent three years as artistic director of Project STEP, a classical music academy for gifted minority students in Boston run by the Boston Symphony and the New England Conservatory of Music. Thomas would like to start a similar program here.
Yvonne Giles, who started the Isaac Scott Hathaway museum of Kentucky black history, is on the foundation's board. The building could eventually house that collection and host a variety of cultural programs, Thomas said.
The 10-member board includes Dan Rowland, a UK history professor; Lisa Higgins-Hord, UK's vice president of community engagement; Urban County Councilman Chris Ford and architect Van Meter Pettit.
First African Baptist Church leaders support the project, and several were among about 50 people who attended a fund-raising reception Saturday at a home near Nicholasville. The event included a string quartet that played classical music by black composer William Grant Still.
"Fiscally, we're in tough shoes, but this building is a national treasure," Thomas said of the foundation's ambitious fund-raising goal. "To know that folks in bondage committed their resources, which were so limited, to build such a remarkable structure inspires us to do great things with it."