Op-Ed

Old courthouse best place to recall city’s racial history

Renovation of the old Fayette County Courthouse includes a restaurant, bourbon bar, Breeders’ Cup headquarters and the city’s visitors and convention bureau.
Renovation of the old Fayette County Courthouse includes a restaurant, bourbon bar, Breeders’ Cup headquarters and the city’s visitors and convention bureau.

Should Lexington’s tax money be used to choose commercial winners? Some of us who work across from the old courthouse have noticed a succession of failed businesses in this vicinity. We suspect that the proposed public/private competitors inside the remodeled courthouse will make hard-working, risk-taking restaurant and bar neighbors excessively vulnerable.

While Lexington History Museum’s former CEO, James Millard, claims that the city would be in fraudulent breach of its agreement to return the museum to the courthouse, I want to expand upon his vision. As I testified before the Commission on Statues (which stand outside the building), there is an increasingly obvious purpose for this destination: a slavery and segregation memorial.

No longer are these experiences our dirty laundry. They constitute compelling historical facts and stories, amazingly centered at this location. Curious generations of children might snicker when they find out how bad the good ol’ days really were. Tourists could be treated by local thespians to dramas of events that occurred in the slave market, where the pavilion now stands.

African-Americans, who composed a quarter of Lexington’s population in 1860, were jailed and lashed at the whipping post next to the courthouse for being outside their homes after 6 p.m. The Underground Railroad chugged through Lexington, and its engineers were prosecuted here.

The South lost the Civil War; so while Confederate statues stand arrogantly outside the building, let us find a way to celebrate the winners inside. Why can’t we make a hero out of the legislator/ambassador/duelist Cassius Clay, who published abolitionist opinions in the days before the Civil War?

Kids and tourists might be shocked as re-enactors stage the scene outside the courthouse in 1920, when a lynch mob of 5,000 to 10,000 charged the courthouse to get at black World War I veteran Will Lockett, who was accused of killing a white girl.

According to news accounts, six vigilantes were killed and 50 wounded, when the National Guard (called up by the governor to protect the court and its all-white male jurors) opened fire on the crowd with Gatling guns. Bullets left pockmarks still visible in the stone walls of the courthouse.

My mixed-race grandchildren should learn that even up to the middle of the 20th century, their ancestors — African-American and Caucasian — could be in absolute peril from the Ku Klux Klan and their “good Christian” neighbors for impermissible racial mingling. Trinity Baptist Church, with its ministry to black youth, was firebombed, as was a shopping center established by a prominent black professional on Georgetown Street.

Basketball junkies could revel in the story of how Bill Russell and K.C. Jones led the World Champion Boston Celtics to boycott exhibition games with the St. Louis Hawks after a hotel, two blocks from the courthouse, refused to serve lunch to blacks.

For most of the last century, black and white students could not, by law, attend the same schools and colleges in this state. Republican Judge-Executive Joe Johnson was defeated in 1969 after he signed ordinances authorizing our Human Rights Commission and school busing.

Lexington even had its own Michael Brown/Black Lives Matter demonstrations, on Main Street in 1994 after Lexington policeman Phil Vogel shot unarmed Tony Sullivan, who had been hiding in a closet.

We need a place in the restored courthouse where we can reflect on Lexington’s racially troubled history, an appropriate use of governmental space — not merely more bars and restaurants.

Jon Larson is a Lexington lawyer and former Fayette judge-executive.

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