Years ago, while living in International House in New York, I met a visiting scholar from Georgia in Eastern Europe.
Giorgi Meladze was a lawyer, and we eventually co-authored an article on religious liberty, his specialty. He heard something on the radio in New York that made us both chuckle. “These foreigners come to America and hang around New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago,” the announcer declared. “But if you want to get a taste of the real America, you need to meet a Baptist from Kentucky!”
What could it mean to be “a Baptist from Kentucky?” Now is a good time to ask, as Lexington contemplates monuments to historical figures, including John Hunt Morgan and John C. Breckinridge, and uncovers the Town Branch tributary that will be a new focal point downtown.
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The two most striking examples of my slavery-based Baptist from Kentucky comeuppance might be Lexington’s Main Street Baptist Church and Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church.
Main Street Baptist was organized in 1862 as the Independent Baptist Church when 500 members, led by the Rev. Frederick Braxton, withdrew from the colored First Baptist Church — eventually worshiping on land conveyed by relatives of Mary Todd Lincoln. According to the church history, “Abraham Lincoln … is recorded on the church’s original deed dated August 20, 1863.”
Four blocks southwest, at Maxwell and Patterson, is Pleasant Green Baptist, organized in 1790 under a slave preacher owned by Lexington pioneer John Maxwell. That congregation is among the few antebellum black Baptist churches that was never under the authority of white ministers, operating without permission from any predecessor white congregation.
The historic marker in front reads: “HISTORIC LAND / The land upon which Pleasant Green Baptist Church stands was conveyed in 1822 by Dr. Frederick Ridgely, a white surgeon in Lexington, to trustees Harry Quills, Benjamin Admon, and Solomon Walker, all slaves, for purpose of erecting an African church.”
The current building was completed in 1931 during the Great Depression. The Lexington Leader covered its dedication, noting the 40-rank Pilcher pipe organ and other impressive features. In the 1960s, the church was the hub of the civil rights movement in Central Kentucky, housing the founding of the Congress of Racial Equality, bringing in activists despite a bomb threat, and facilitating the historic election of member Harry Sykes to the city council and later as mayor pro tem.
These churches’ very existence is an achievement of which all Kentuckians should be proud.
In the midst of renewed racial tensions across America, my aim has been to reposition our collective excellences as testaments to our great possibilities.
I’ve discussed this history in various settings, including last year at Campbellsville University. I concluded with a video of the demolition of Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church after approximately 150 years to make way for a new Falcons football stadium.
“I don’t want this to happen here in Kentucky,” I said. But, will it?
Are Main Street and Pleasant Green endangered by the rediscovered urban core? Are city officials or developers ogling their land and angling to coerce a sellout? Are we witnessing a real-time unfolding of “the last temptation” of black Baptists?
Main Street Baptist ought to be incorporated into the plan for the proposed Town Branch Park adjoining it, along with the Mary Todd Lincoln House.
Pleasant Green is a prime candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. Her history and resilience say so much about the power of Americans to overcome slavery through the uncannily self-corrective mechanisms of our democracy, including religious liberty. It should be home to a visitors’ center that tells its story and what it meant for pioneering blacks in the 1700s and 1800s amid America’s westward expansion, and in the Second Reconstruction of the 1900s.
Lexington’s recent debates over the Morgan and Breckinridge statues present an opportunity for conversation about the uniqueness of this region’s history. This crossroads is beyond a local concern; it is of international significance.
As monuments to both slavery and freedom, these two black institutions inspire far beyond the Bluegrass. They display America at its very best, radiating those special American powers of self-examination, social transformation, and political redemption.
As a Baptist from Kentucky, I implore the Lexington community to take serious stock of what you have —– and to develop it, rather than destroy it.
Lexington native Amos N. Jones is a Washington lawyer and legal scholar.