According to William Thomas, a step into the building at the corner of Short and Deweese streets is a step back into history. The building there was originally built in 1856 by its congregation of slaves and named the First African Baptist Church.
Thomas describes the building, with its glorious columns and gothic arched windows and interior, as a beacon for the enslaved at the time of its foundation. Its congregation at one point included 2,000 people – almost a quarter of the city’s population in the late 1800s. He recalls finding evidence that slaves at the Waveland plantation, in southern Fayette County, used to walk all the way to downtown to attend church. For many, the Sunday service was their only opportunity to reunite with parents, siblings and spouses who may have been sold to other families in the area.
The church’s congregation was founded in 1790 by slave Peter Durrett, who came west as a scout for a traveling church of early Baptists fleeing religious persecution in Virginia. Ultimately, he fell into the ownership of the family of John Maxwell, one of the city’s first founders. Due to Durrett’s experience with the Baptists and respect within the community among blacks and whites, Maxwell allowed him to build a cabin on his property that originally housed the congregation.
After Durrett, London Ferrill took over the church’s leadership, and helped pull together the funds to purchase and resell several properties that generated enough profit for the church’s construction.
Ferrill garnered enormous respect from the community when he risked his life to minister to blacks and whites who fell ill during the city’s cholera epidemic in the 1830s.
“The history of the city is just woven through this project,” Thomas notes. “You hear as a youngster about all this history around you, and it doesn’t mean much to you at all. I really didn’t have a sense for how African Americans were part of this community. In school, when we were taught Kentucky history, it was all Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, and that was about it.”
These days, he feels a little differently about it.
Upon his retirement, Thomas returned to his hometown of Lexington from Boston and was distressed to hear that the building where he had attended church as a young man was in danger of being sold to developers later this year, at which point it will be torn down. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and part of the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, currently houses the daycare program of Central Christian Church. The First African Baptist Church congregatoin has since moved on to a new building on Price Road.
Formerly a cellist and conductor, Thomas dreamed in 2008 of restoring the building and converting it to a museum and cultural center showcasing African American art. He formed the First African Foundation to try to raise money to purchase the building and give life to his vision. “It just makes me so excited I can hardly sit still,” he exclaims.
Together with architect Greg Fitzsimons of Fitzsimons Architecture, the foundation has drawn up plans that will preserve as much of the original structure as possible, while including a modern addition that will connect to the current building in order to house the art galleries. Among the plans for the addition is an equestrian gallery that would feature African Americans who played prominent roles in the state’s signature Thorough-bred industry. Many of them were jockeys, and some became highly successful, such as Derby winners Jimmy Winkfield, Oliver Lewis and Isaac Murphy (who won the race three times).
The façade of the church will appear no different, according to Thomas. Inside the sanctuary, some of the original windows that have been bricked over will be recovered, and the balcony will be adjusted to form more of a U-shape to better accommodate music performances. This part of the plan has particular significance to Thomas, as he grew up in First African playing his cello for the congregation long before it ultimately became his career.
Thomas reports that Central Christian has given the foundation until September to raise the $800,000 needed to purchase the building. Currently, the group has raised $80,000, and has a matching grant promised up to $100,000. Thomas and the foundation’s board estimate that the total project – purchase, renovation and construction – will cost around $4 million.
“The fundraising has been challenging,” he admits.
To learn more or donate to the First African Foundation, visit www.firstafricanfoundation.org.