By: Leslie Guttman
Hidden behind the pulpit at Lexington’s St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church lies a small room with a storied past.
The story of the Underground Railroad is a story of survival, of giant struggle and the ability to overcome.
Tice Davids’ master chased him to the edge of the Ohio River and nearly caught him, but the slave jumped into the waters. It was 1831. Tice began swimming from Kentucky to Ohio for his freedom from slavery. The slave owner, determined not to give up, spotted a rowboat, dragged it into the river and continued his chase. But when he got to the Ohio side, Tice had vanished, possibly helped by abolitionists waiting for him. For the slave owner, it was as if Tice had “gone off on an underground road.” And that is how it is believed that the Underground Railroad got his name.
Kentucky was the last state slaves needed to pass through on the Underground Railroad’s northern route to freedom. One of the hidden “stations” on the Underground Railroad was located at Lexington’s St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church on North Upper Street. It was installed in 1850 and remains there today. Concealed behind the pulpit are a narrow set of twisting stairs that lead to a small room where the slaves waited for the route to be safe and help available for them to cross the river into Cincinnati.
In honor of the room’s legacy, St. Paul AME has changed it as little as possible. It is about six feet wide and ten feet long, with unvarnished wood floors and bare plaster walls. One window. The room breathes history, says the church’s pastor, William Hale, the bravery, determination, fear and hope it held everpresent.
“It is an awesome task to be not only the sacred caretakers of the room but the proclaimers of keeping history alive,” says Hale. “There are some who wish slavery could be a footnote to history, but you can’t do that to a people. Slavery cannot be just a page in a book. That history is guiding the social forces of today.”
St. Paul AME has been in the city since 1820, and it’s believed to be the oldest continuously used and existing house of worship in Lexington. It has been in its current location since 1826. In 1885, prominent black Kentuckians met at the church to discuss, create and then adopt a resolution that asked the government for better public schools and a school for educating black teachers. The following spring, Governor J. Proctor Knott signed a bill that called for the creation of that teachers’ school, which exists today as Kentucky State University in Frankfort.
Pastor Hale attended services at the church as a kid 30 years ago. He would sit in the pews and think about the slaves in the room up above him over a century earlier, waiting in stillness to the sound of their breath and the beating of their hearts.
“It’s a calling for us as a congregation to preserve this sacred space,” he says. “The story of the Underground Railroad is a story of survival, of giant struggle and the ability to overcome.”
To inquire about the availability of seeing the Underground Railroad station at St. Paul AME Church, 251 North Upper Street, call the church office at (859) 255-7945.