A team of historians has uncovered a significant civil rights rally in Lexington that was held on the Fourth of July, 1867.
According to one published report, an “immense” crowd of six-to ten- thousand people, mostly African Americans, participated in one of the largest civil rights gatherings held in Kentucky until the civil rights march in Frankfort on March 5, 1964.
Never heard of this early civil rights gathering? You’re not alone. Beyond a handful of historians, few know about this impressive display of “grass roots” politics organized by African Americans after the Civil War.
The significance of this landmark gathering recently came to light with the rediscovery of a detailed article published in the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper on July 8th, 1867, which provides a firsthand account of this all-but forgotten event.
WUKY's Alan Lytle recently talked with Thomas M. Law of the Voyageur Media Group, which is working with the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, Kentucky Heritage Council, and KET to publicize this watershed moment in Kentucky history.
The Procession and Crowds
Despite morning showers, the streets of downtown Lexington were “filled with masses of men, women and children…determined to have a Fourth of July,” according to the Cincinnati Commercial. A brass band of twenty pieces headed a procession of Union Army soldiers, veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops, and carriages with local dignitaries. The procession wound its way through downtown, stopping to formally honor members standing in front of the buildings of such organizations as the Soldier’s League, Freedmen’s Bureau, Colored Ladies of Lexington, Masons, Odd Fellows and several chapters of Benevolent Societies. The honored members and crowd joined the parade until the “procession was over a mile long,” culminating in a woods just off Harrodsburg Pike south of Lexington. There, a crowd estimated at six thousand people by the Lexington Observer & Reporter and ten thousand by the Cincinnati Commercial, gathered for a day of picnics, music and speeches.
By any standard, the crowd of up to ten thousand was enormous, a figure representing almost the entire black population of Fayette County. The celebration must have attracted African-American families from throughout the Bluegrass Region. The Freedmen’s Bureau, African-American churches, civic groups and community leaders were instrumental in spreading the word, according to Ms. Yvonne Giles, Director, Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum. Robert Elijah Hathaway was one of those leaders. Hathaway, a Christian preacher and Union Army veteran, was also a founding member of the Kentucky State Benevolent Association, one of many new African-American organizations that planned this unprecedented civil rights event.
A “committee of colored soldiers” invited some of the most prominent civil rights advocates to speak at the gathering, including: The Reverend John G. Fee, founder of Berea College; General James Sanks Brisbin, who commanded the 5th U.S. Colored Cavalry; Judge William Clinton Goodloe, a respected circuit court judge; Reverend G.H. Graham, Minister, African Methodist Episcopal Church; and William Willard Davis, a Republican politician and attorney.
"Fully 10,000 people were on the ground, not more than half of whom could hear, but the immense crowd stood for hours and were quite still, even where they could only catch now and then a word of what the speaker was saying.” - Cincinnati Commercial, July 8, 1867
Speaking out for civil rights was becoming increasing dangerous in Kentucky in 1867, according to records of violence compiled by the Freedmen’s Bureau. White civil rights advocates were often shunned, professionally and socially. Some were threatened with violence. The stakes for black civil rights leaders were much higher. African Americans who spoke out for equal rights or basic justice faced a litany of “outrages” from gangs, mobs or regulators, ranging from harassment, death threats and burned out homes to whippings, beatings and lynching. The Fourth of July (Independence Day) provided enough patriotic cover for African Americans to rally in peaceful protest of the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws that made them second-class citizens in Kentucky and other Southern states.
Most of what is known about the Fourth of July event comes from two newspapers. The Lexington Observer & Reporter published an 875-word article on page three of its issue on July 6, 1867. The article downplayed the scope of the event, which the writer admitted was “quite imposing to eyes unused to such a scene.” It also described some of the speeches, intertwined with its own editorial commentary. The Cincinnati Commercial published a 12,000-word article on the front page of its issue on July 8th, 1867. The article was contributed by a correspondent with the initials E.D.S. While we have one lead, our research team has yet to verify the identity of the writer. We know the correspondent had connections. He or she not only provided detailed descriptions of the event, but also secured copies of the speeches, which were published verbatim in the newspaper.
The speech by Willard Davis exemplified the sentiments of the day. Under the theme “Colored Suffrage,” Davis began by reflecting upon the self-evident truths codified in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence; “all men are created equal,” and the inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He then summarized the history of slavery and the impact of the Civil War before attacking two state laws that abridged the Civil Rights Act of 1866, federal legislation that attempted to define U.S. citizenship and provide all citizens with “equal protections” under the law. Davis decried a state law that prohibited blacks from testifying in state court cases “where a white person is a party concerned.” This law left blacks highly vulnerable to fraud, crime and unwarranted arrest. Davis then denounced a state law that prohibited black men from voting.
"The right to act for yourself, or to say who shall act for you, is higher than all human law, and no State can deprive a freeman of this right and be republican in fact. No government can be just and deprive any portion of her citizens of this right. In this respect suffrage is a natural right; the age at which you may exercise it is political and may be altered or amended, and so may a state fix qualifications, but the great original right to vote at some time remains, and cannot be taken from freemen except by despotic force." - William Willard Davis, Fourth of July, 1867, Lexington, Kentucky.
(It’s interesting to note that General James Brisbin was the only speaker who called for universal suffrage, or the right for all citizens, including white and black women, to vote.)
The U.S. Senate
The speeches presented in Lexington that day reverberated all the way to the floor of the U.S. Senate. On July 13th, the Senate opened debate on funding for legislation that would become the Third Reconstruction Act of 1867, according to transcripts in the Congressional Globe. During the debate, Senator Garrett Davis, a Democrat from Kentucky, accused Senator Charles Sumner, a Republican from Massachusetts, of spreading “fictions” in Congress about “wrongs and crimes committed in the Southern states against negroes and Union men.” Moreover, Senator Davis proclaimed that Sumner’s ultimate motivation was “to reconstruct Kentucky.” He was right. Sumner, a fiery abolitionist, was indeed secretly lobbying to add Kentucky (a pro Union state) to the list of Confederate states targeted for Reconstruction measures. Sumner countered by pulling out a copy of the Fourth of July article published in the Cincinnati Commercial. Sumner cited numerous speeches from the Fourth of July in Lexington as evidence of the “mere mockery of justice” regarding civil rights for blacks in Kentucky. Sumner concluded, “Surely a State which has such laws needs a little reconstruction.” Senator Davis gave a strong rebuttal in defense of Kentucky, but the heated argument ended only when the Senate President moved on to other business.
In a twist of historic irony, Senator Garrett Davis had a more direct connection to the Fourth of July gathering in Lexington than he may have ever known. Robert Elijah Hathaway, a member of several organizations that helped plan civil rights event in 1867, was a slave in Bourbon County before he escaped to join the Union Army at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County. Just three years earlier, Robert Hathaway was the property of Senator Garrett Davis.
The rediscovery of details and connections from this remarkable civil rights event came during research for “Davis Bottom: Rare History, Valuable Lives,” the sixth episode in the Kentucky Archaeology & Heritage Series. One of the speakers, Willard Davis, is the namesake of Davis Bottom, one of about a dozen ethnic enclaves developed for thousands of African Americans who migrated to Lexington after the Civil War. Robert Elijah Hathaway was one of the first residents of Davis Bottom. Robert, his wife, Rachel, and several relatives established a household on Pine Street where their three children were born. Fannie, Isaac and Eva were among the first generation of African Americans in Kentucky to secure a formal education, each one pioneering professional careers in the fields of education, the arts and nursing.
The advisory panel for The Kentucky Archaeology & Heritage Series, scholars from state agencies and academic institutions, immediately recognized the significance of the Fourth of July event. They authorized funds to commission an artist’s rendering to illustrate the landmark gathering as an “educational resource for viewers, teachers and students across the Commonwealth.” Artist Susan A. Walton was selected to create an original work based on the production teams archival research, the research and insights of Ms. Yvonne Giles, and the vivid descriptions published in The Cincinnati Commercial. The artwork, entitled “Fourth of July, 1867, Lexington, Kentucky,” depicts the scene from behind the speaker’s platform, focusing attention on the size and scope of the crowd, which gathered on that day by the thousands to stand up for basic civil rights.
Walton was selected to create an original work based on the production teams archival research, the research and insights of Ms. Yvonne Giles, and the vivid descriptions published in The Cincinnati Commercial. The artwork, entitled “Fourth of July, 1867, Lexington, Kentucky,” depicts the scene from behind the speaker’s platform, focusing attention on the size and scope of the crowd, which gathered on that day by the thousands to stand up for basic civil rights.
Our research continues. The production team is currently developing “The Hathaway Family: A Journey from Slavery to Civil Rights,” a documentary and website project that will be the seventh episode in The Kentucky Archaeology & Heritage Series. During the research and development phase this summer, our research team, including a student from Berea College, hope to discover answers to some lingering research questions about the Fourth of July event.
• How did African Americans in Lexington develop such effective “grass roots” organizations and communications networks during the early civil rights period, ca. 1865 to the 1920s?
• How does the attendance at the 1867 Fourth of July event in Lexington compare to other civil rights gatherings held in Kentucky during the 1800s?
• Who is E.D.S., the correspondent who contributed the article about the Fourth of July, 1867 to the Cincinnati Commercial?
• What was the political impact of this landmark event not only in Lexington and Kentucky, but also nationally?
Connecting the Past to the Present
One hundred and forty years ago, the massive crowds and civil rights speeches from the Fourth of July gathering in 1867 drew national attention to the plight of African Americans in Kentucky after the Civil War. As we gather to celebrate the Fourth of July in 2014, let’s not forget an unprecedented civil rights gathering in Lexington that helped build a foundation for the modern civil rights movement, which made it possible for all Americans to celebrate our national birthday.
This article was reprinted with permission by Voyageur Media Group, Inc.
Other informational links are available below.
Davis Bottom companion website
The History section has articles, bios, images and primary resources connected to the Fourth of July, 1867, Willard Davis and Hathaway family.
Voyageur Media Group, Inc./Hathaway project site
Information about the project (in development). We will keep visitors updated on our progress, including video updates about research being conducted by teams under the Kentucky Heritage Corps., which covers research at the Isaac Scott Hathaway Museum, University of Kentucky and Berea.
Our campaign to raise $12,000 for the research and development phase of the Hathaway Family project, which was launched today and runs until August 5th.