Powerful people in Lexington’s past would have rather buried memories of our city’s slave jails and the assassination of a black newspaper editor.
That makes it all the more commendable that a group of today’s leaders is reviving that history by creating an African-American Heritage Trail in and around downtown. The first of 12 historical markers was unveiled last week in time for the annual Roots and Heritage Festival.
Thanks to Together Lexington, a partnership of businesses, nonprofits and community organizations, for providing $75,000 to create the heritage trail.
Since its beginnings in 2016, Together Lexington has sought to “energize the community through a positive marketing campaign and funding projects that will improve quality of life.”
The group has hosted a series of 12 “Courageous Conversations,” attended by 450 people who tackled a variety of local challenges, including affordable housing, LGBTQ inclusion, race relations and police and community relations. Summaries of the forums are available on the Together Lexington web site. The group also has hosted a workshop for people to learn how to expunge felony convictions and was a sponsor of last year’s Picnic with the Police at Douglass Park.
People who take the self-guided historical trail will learn about the First African Baptist Church which was built in 1856 and was the first black congregation this side of the Allegheny Mountains. At the corner of Short and DeWeese streets, that marker already is in place; the rest are expected to join it this fall.
Also commemorated will be R.C.O. Benjamin, a lawyer and editor of the Lexington Standard, who was killed in 1900 after escorting black voters to the polls. His killer was exonerated though Benjamin had been shot six times in the back. A marker on North Lime will commemorate the people who were held in Lexington’s “slave jails” while waiting to be sold into slavery.
As painful as much of our history is, we can’t build a solid future without an honest understanding of the past.
“Though they aren’t famous, these citizens were far from ordinary,” said Rufus Friday, the outgoing publisher of the Lexington Herald-Leader and the catalyst behind Together Lexington. “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.”
Friday, who himself made history by becoming the Herald-Leader’s first black publisher, is leaving the newspaper Sept. 14 to pursue new opportunities. We will miss his steady, compassionate leadership and know he has much still to contribute.