In 1894, Marshal Boston had been arrested on a charge that he shot and killed a white employer in Frankfort.
Only 15 years later, John Maxey stood accused of fatally shooting a traveling circus performer, also white.
Both men — black Frankfort residents — were then seized by a crowd of white vigilantes before having their day in court and hanged from what is now known as the Singing Bridge for their alleged crimes.
“In the African American community of Frankfort, we call it the 'Swinging Bridge,’” said Ed Powe, a black Frankfort resident and racial activist.
The two lynchings are only a couple of verified racial atrocities to occur in the capital city of Kentucky but among thousands to occur during that era in the United States. At least 169 occurred in Kentucky from 1877 to 1950, according to figures provided by the Alabama-based nonprofit advocate for equal treatment in the criminal justice system Equal Justice Initiative.
As the metal grates of the Singing Bridge hummed Thursday with vehicles steadily passing over it, Powe said there were reports of at least three other, unverified lynchings in Frankfort in the same period. And in at least the case of Maxey — who was hanged June 3, 1909, and then shot — the scene was meant to be seen.
“That’s the part that is shocking to me,” Powe said. “They took target practice. There was a large gathering — it was a spectacle. And there were no arrests. No one in the mob saw consequences to their actions.”
Only 110 years later and only a few generations removed, the racial tension of the foregone years in the U.S. lingers. And Powe, also president of Frankfort’s Focus on Race Relations (FORR) group, is calling on locals to face down history in order to change the future.
“We have found that people are still afraid to step outside their comfort zone and talk about race issues,” he said. “We have to face it and start a conversation, because we’re being pulled apart like no other time in our country since the Civil War.”
FORR, which was co-founded by Scott Rollins, arose in its own respect in August 2017 after televised images of white nationalists marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, with tiki torches — some flashing the “Sieg Heil” salute — reached homes across America. One person was killed and 28 others were injured counterprotesting the “Unite the Right” rally.
Earlier this year, FORR gathered local leaders for a “truth and resolution luncheon,” Powe said, in which 35 local elected officials attended and all but one agreed that racism still exists in Frankfort.
With the 110th anniversary of Maxley’s death this June and the 125th anniversary of Boston's death coming in August, FORR began a push for conversations about race in the area. The group has so far been encouraging church leaders to start the dialogue about the history of race in Frankfort, Powe said, adding that ancestors of white perpetrators of racial injustice and black ancestors of victims have to accept the past in order to have an honest and civil discussion.
“We don’t want people to act out,” he said. “We want them to act in, and that starts with a conversation. We can't be afraid to talk about race in America.”
As part of the effort to advance the conversation and highlight Frankfort’s history, FORR submitted an application to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) to be part of its “Lynching in America” exhibit in Montgomery, Alabama. The group's application was accepted, and soil taken from the foot of The Singing Bridge will be on display in Alabama.
The ceremony will conclude at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 18, with the soil being placed in a container during a gathering at the Paul Sawyier Public Library's River Room. However, Powe hopes that is not the last of the involvement from EJI.
FORR has requested the organization's assistance and the city’s participation in erecting a monument in a flower bed north of the Singing Bridge that would honor the lynching victims.
Powe said this is his small part to create greater acceptance of racial diversity throughout the country.
“I can’t change the country,” he said. “But I can change what’s happening in my hometown. And that's something everyone can do.”