First African Foundation works to preserve a city landmark

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Natalie Voss

(From left) Architect Greg Fitzsimons; Phaon Patton, First African Baptist Church executive director and First African Foundation board member; and William Thomas, First African Foundation president. PHOTO BY ROBBIE CLARK

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.

The former First African Baptist Church was originally built in 1856 by its congregation of slaves in the Lexington area.

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.”

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