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Black History Month: The remarkable life of Lewis Hayden

  • The Lexington Herald-Leader
  • Published Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, at 11:54 a.m.

When the Marquis de Lafayette visited Lexington in May 1825, during his celebrated national tour, a slave child of 13 slipped away from his chores long enough to try to catch a glimpse of the French hero of the American Revolution.

Lewis Hayden would later recall sitting alone on a fence as the parade passed through town. As Lafayette's open carriage approached, the most famous man Hayden had ever heard of turned and bowed his head to acknowledge him.

"That act burnt his image upon my heart so that I shall never need a permit to recall it," Hayden would later tell friends. "I date my hatred of slavery from that day."

One of the things I love about reading history, especially black history, is discovering fascinating people of great accomplishment I previously knew nothing about.

I had never heard of Hayden until last year, when William Thomas gave me an old library copy of Joel Strangis' 1999 book, Lewis Hayden and the War Against Slavery. That led me to other sources that also told the story of a Lexington man who escaped slavery, settled in Boston and led a remarkable life.

Thomas, a Lexington retiree, is the leader of a nonprofit foundation trying to raise money to buy and preserve the old First African Baptist Church building at Short and Deweese streets. Thomas dreams of turning this handsome old church, built around 1856 by a slave congregation, into a performance hall and arts academy.

Like Hayden, Thomas found success in Boston. After graduating from Lexington's then-segregated schools, Thomas became an accomplished musician, built an outstanding orchestra during a 36-year career at Phillips Andover prep school and headed Project STEP, a classical music academy for gifted minority students run by the Boston Symphony and New England Conservatory of Music.

Thomas says the restored church building would be a fitting tribute to 19th-century Lexington blacks who accomplished great things against all odds. Coincidentally, he said, the church is at the site of a former clock and cabinet shop where Hayden worked for one of his masters, Elijah Warner.

Strangis' book tells how Hayden was sold to Warner by his first master, the Rev. Adam Rankin, whose circa 1784 house is the oldest still standing in Lexington.

While Hayden belonged to Warner, he married another slave, Esther, and they had a son. But when Esther's owner's business failed, she and their son were purchased by Henry Clay. The statesman later sold them South, and Hayden never saw his family again. He married a second time, to Harriet Bell, a slave who had a young son.

Hayden was sold in 1840 to a man who whipped him, then two years later to two businessmen who leased him to the Phoenix Hotel, where he worked as a waiter.

Through his various jobs, Hayden learned more than most slaves did about the white world, including how to read. Inspired by Lafayette and angry with Clay, Hayden vowed that he and his second family would be free someday.

In the fall of 1844, Hayden planned his escape with help from two white abolitionists, Delia Webster, a Vermonter who ran a Lexington girls' school, and Calvin Fairbank, a ministerial student at Oberlin College in Ohio who helped free several Kentucky slaves. They smuggled the Hayden family across the Ohio River, and the Underground Railroad helped them all the way to Canada.

Webster and Fairbank were not so fortunate. Convicted of helping the Haydens escape, Webster became one of the first women imprisoned in Kentucky, although she was pardoned two months into her two-year sentence. Fairbank spent five years in prison.

After a short time in Canada, Hayden felt called to return to this country and join the anti-slavery movement. His family settled in Boston, running a clothing store and boarding house, and assisting escaped slaves.

Hayden learned in 1849 that if he repaid his Lexington owner $650 as compensation for his loss, the man would petition Kentucky's governor to free Fairbank. So Hayden bought the freedom of the man who had helped him secure his.

If Lewis Hayden's story ended there, it would be remarkable. But he went on to do much, much more. Read about that in my column next Wednesday.

First of two-part story about the amazing life of Lewis Hayden, who was born a slave in Lexington in 1811.

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