“It was more than a church, it was a meeting place,” said Yvonne Giles of the First African Church, her voice bouncing off the walls of its former sanctuary. And it could become a meeting place again, if the First African Foundation can raise the funds necessary to purchase and adapt the 157 year old church in downtown Lexington, Kentucky as an African American history and community center.
The Italianate church at the corner of Limestone and Deweese Streets is striking. It’s arched windows soar. Its columned portico is elegant. Its mass is impressive.
It is also brave, defiant and hopeful – because what is most remarkable about the First African Baptist Church is that it was built and paid for in 1856, when most of its members were enslaved.
When the church was constructed, its members sometimes walked miles from households and farms scattered far and wide to meet at church on Sunday. Because enslaved families were often separated, church was the only time some were able to visit with their spouses, siblings or even their children.
The church continued to be a meeting place for Lexington’s African American community after the Civil War. Located in the heart of the East End, a traditionally African American neighborhood, the church hosted concerts and lectures and eventually housed a school and the first black YMCA in the city.
The First African Baptist Church’s roots in the United States are deep. It the third oldest black congregation in the US and the oldest in Kentucky. It was founded in the 1790s by Paul Durrett, affectionately known to his flock and fellow slaves as “Old Captain,” who emigrated to Kentucky from Virginia with his master, an early pioneer.
From its humble beginnings in a rough log cabin on the estate of Durrett’s master, the congregation grew to almost 2,000 members under the leadership of Rev. London Ferrill, a former slave who by all accounts was a highly respected and powerful preacher. By the time the congregation moved to Short and Deweese, it was the largest congregation in Kentucky – black or white. It was the same year Reverend Ferrill became a local hero when he risked his life to minister to victims of a cholera epidemic that killed hundreds of Lexington’s residents, including his own wife.
When the First African Baptist Church moved to Short and Deweese, in the heart of Lexington’s black community, the site was occupied by the former Old Methodist Meeting House. Construction began on the current structure in 1850, using portions of the original building’s basement. Ferrill died in 1854, just two years before the sanctuary was completed. He was so beloved in Lexington; his funeral procession attracted 5,000 mourners.
After worshiping in downtown Lexington for 154 years, the First African Baptist Church sold the property and relocated to a brand new 1.2 million dollar building a few miles from downtown. The move reflected a need for parking and an even larger space in which to worship and develop programming for the still growing congregation. It also marked a change in Lexington’s East End. Like many downtown neighborhoods in the 1980s, it was experiencing a steep decline.
When the congregation relocated, it took the pews, stained glass windows, and other architectural elements with them to Price Road where they were incorporated into the new church.
Recently, the First African Foundation partnered with The Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation to give a tour of the building at Short and Deweese, which currently houses a day care. Giles, a notable historian and First African Foundation board member, stood at the center of a diverse group and delivered a transfixing narrative about the “deep and rich” history of African Americans in Lexington.
Standing in the former sanctuary, little is left of the once grand interior. The opalescent trompe l’oeil stonework has been painted over with a flat white. Basketball goals have taken the place of the pulpit and rear balcony. The rich red carpet has been replaced by a gymnasium floor. Toys and cots neatly lined the walls. But Giles made the place come alive with her stories. And on easels and tables and taped to the walls, the First African Foundation displayed historical photos of the building , its members, and snippets from church bulletins and newspapers to illustrate what the church was, both architecturally and functionally. The centerpiece was an architect’s rendering of the restored church and an ambitious addition.
The First African Foundation, comprised of members of the congregation as well as historians, preservationists, and nearby residents, sees the church functioning as a facility dedicated to representing the lives of African Americans in the Bluegrass and serving as a meeting place for the community. The center will feature a concert hall (the old sanctuary), rehearsal rooms, and galleries for exhibition, a photographic library, community service space, cafe, gift shop, and administrative offices. It also plans to develop and implement programs and exhibits that reach out and engage the community and sponsor a K-12 music training program for black and Latino students.
If the First African Foundation successfully implements its vision, it will give new life to a nationally significant African American landmark. Against all odds, the members of the First African Baptist Church banded together to raise an impressive sanctuary in which to shelter their faith and grow a community during a time of slavery, racism, and great hardship. The use of the space as a community center, history museum, and concert hall honors that struggle by drawing on the history of the church and the building. As an adaptive reuse project, it is the perfect blend of preservation, history, and fulfillment of a contemporary community need.
Note from Histpres: Guest blogger Rachel Alexander from Bricks + Mortar attended and was inspired by that tour by Yvonne Giles, and if you in turn were inspired to know more by Rachel’s article, consider contacting and contributing to the First African Foundation.