Central Kentucky is a geological island. Sitting atop a dome of limestone, its terrain gently rolls along like a series of offshore waves. Back roads crown the peaks and valleys of this rolling farmland, and when my car sputters to the crests of the waves I feel as though I am looking down on a sea of green. Life here radiates out from Lexington, the gem of the Bluegrass. Small towns form little nodes that break off from the region’s metropolis via a green wall of horse farms. The network of towns creates a web that surrounds the chief city.
I grew up in Versailles (pronounced Ver-sail-z), a charming community which feels the gravitational pulls of Lexington and Frankfort on either side. To the east is the behemoth, adorned with shopping malls and sprawling suburbs that spill into the farmland. The pull of the city is strong, but the little town is buffered from the sprawl sufficiently to keep it in the distance. It’s where we work and where we play, but for now we are content to divide our lives into two hemispheres bridged by highway 60.
To the south and west is the Kentucky River, which cuts through the Bluegrass limestone cushion. It bisects the stable topography of central Kentucky, imposing it with a gorge lined by steep cliffs; these naked cliffs wall off the river below. On top of them floats the landscape of Woodford County. As one follows the river north, they’re brought to the point at which the inner Bluegrass butts up against a land of choppy hills and ridges. This belt of earth is like sandpaper, and it rings a glossy core of unwinding fields.
At this point, where the river crosses through the edge of our geological island, sits the capital city of Frankfort. Though it is the state’s seat of government, it is a sleepy little town; in fact, that it is the capital at all seems like some historical accident. Up until the twentieth century, it was fighting constant uphill battles with legislation designed to move the government somewhere– anywhere– else: Louisville, Lexington, Danville, Harrodsburg, Lebanon, Bowling Green, Perryville, Bardstown, Pikeville, Paducah, even Middlesboro. All the efforts failed, though many of the attempts did receive the support of the majority. Luckily for Frankfort, two/thirds support was needed, and the Louisvillians and Lexingtonians were too busy squabbling to unite behind one of their own. Among those itching to pull the capital from Frankfort was famous Kentucky statesman and Lexingtonian Henry Clay. Before the gallery at the old state capitol, he called Frankfort “nature’s great penitentiary,” with her citizens mere prisoners. To make his point, he directed everyone’s attention to the gallery full of the town’s citizens.
Perhaps it’s unfair, but he had a point. The town is nestled in the river valley, walled off by imposing bluffs on all sides. The city lies at the bottom of what Clay called an “inverted hat,” where morning haze settles every new day. Frankfort is shut off from the rest of the world but by the winding river, and it is here where politicians meet from across the state to run this odd land.
This is a town of altitudinal contrasts. I live on the edge of the bowl before it slopes into the river bend below: here is the site of the Kentucky State University campus, known as “the hill.” It is etched into the side of a bluff that overlooks a narrow hollow. On the edge of the campus, a narrow road skirts the top of the ravine, and in the fall the trees here shed their foliage to pull back a curtain on the bed of quaint if not worn homes below. On the other side the hollow is reinforced by Fort Hill.
From the campus I can see a small road climb up the rocky spine of the hill, which stands out in the middle of the ring of bluffs around it. The hill comes to an abrupt ending overlooking Frankfort – a steep cliff with shining limestone separates those above from the town below. It was here that a team of Black workers helped build an earthen fort to protect the town from attack. Frankfort had already been captured by the Confederates, who held it for a month. Afterwards, with the main forces driven away, the biggest risk came from guerrilla fighters such as the infamous Morgan’s Raiders. When they crept up on Frankfort in 1864, the Black workers ran to the safety of the fort only to be redirected down the hill. It was feared that if the secessionists found themselves opposite a group of Black men (though they were not soldiers) that they would have no mercy, possibly repeating the Confederate massacres that were recently reported in the news. The fort was successfully defended not by a union garrison but a ragtag militia of local residents, including the Governor himself. A beacon of their success, today an American flag flies triumphantly from atop the vista overlooking the city. All of this on a mound that lies across from the current site of the historically Black Kentucky State; in the nook between the two sites, a house is adorned with the flag of the army of Northern Virginia.
The university was founded as an all-Black school in 1886, perched on top of a town where segregation was the norm. Students were living inside the bounds of the south’s racial caste system. As the struggle for civil rights took hold, students at Kentucky State clamored to get involved. A local organization, the Students for Civil Rights (affiliate of the Congress of Racial Equality, or CORE) began to get the ball rolling in 1960. They faced resistance from the college president Rufus B. Atwood, who used student protests for increased privileges as an excuse to punish CORE members. The students asked for a host of demands such as the ability for female students to go home on weekends, more freedom for those with cars, and better food in the cafeteria. Their protests started with a cafeteria boycott that ended with the exasperated dean overturning tables in anger. Later that day, around four hundred protesters surrounded the new Blazer Library, where the Board of Regents was meeting. Atwood responded by leading the college in withdrawing recognition of the Students for Civil Rights group that night; later, he expelled twelve student members of the group, along with two faculty members. The chaos culminated in an arsonist burning down the school gymnasium, and most of the six hundred students simply went home.
Sitting in front of the library, one can see that its design is a product of the modernist ways of its time. The main entrance is signaled by a brick archway, with wings of concrete jutting out on both sides. The concrete undercarriage supports a brick facade above, with narrow columns stacked next to each other like dominoes. The library represents the architectural gusto of the newer campus buildings, which all present themselves with a smothering candor. Their inflexibility contrasts sharply with the waves of the surrounding landscape. Downtown Frankfort used to be cursed with a team of these concrete monsters as well, as we shall see. Part of my fascination with this place has come from the juxtaposition of two distinct architectural modes squeezed together; many of the haughty creations of the postwar era have been recently demolished, but when they were here they had an unmistakable friction with the 19th century buildings and steeples that sat to the south. Now postmodernist works spring up in their place.
Next to the library we see Kentucky State’s oldest building, which looks like a miniature castle made of brick, and it’s from here that we’re led into a yellow brick pathway pointing towards the student center. It takes a considerable amount of winding to leave campus, until we catch US 60 as it descends downtown. A cracked sidewalk follows the road, clinging to the edge of the blacktop; old homes are awkwardly angled next to the highway in a manner that puts them perilously close to the passing cars. A half a mile down the road is the entrance to the historic Frankfort Cemetery.
The cemetery is built on a hill so that all along the western boundary is a complete overlook of the city below. Here, a bold American flag is planted at the base of a table rock connected to the cliff. Looking out is the bend of the Kentucky River, forming a bubble of land lined by an opposite series of bluffs that stretch across the horizon. This makes up south Frankfort, where the marble mammoth of the state capitol breaks the pattern of houses. Downtown lies on the bank nearest to the cemetery.
Up another hill lined by rows of tombstones is the grave of the short-lived governor William Goebel. We’re greeted by a statue of the drab populist who was assassinated on the grounds of the old state capitol. The Kenton King, as he was called, propelled his way through state politics with his savvy maneuvering; held back by his uninspired public speaking, he made himself known for his relentless attack on the Louisville & Nashville railroad line and its powerful lobby. At the time he ran for governor, his Democratic party was facing an all out assault from the Republicans. Though the Republican party had been locked out of state politics for decades after the war, it came into its own with a “lily-white” branch that broke from the party’s tradition by giving in on the fight for black rights. Kentucky’s racial backlash manifested itself in a brand new law segregating train cars. Goebel hadn’t voted for the law, starting his campaign for governor by trying to cater to black votes, but he was pressed into admitting that he would enforce the law in office.
He was the son of a union veteran in a state with a sort of obsession with voting ex-Confederates into office. To make things worse, he had even killed a Confederate veteran in a duel. Goebel spent time trying to appease the Democratic fanatics of the Confederacy in a political atmosphere still dominated by the war, and he did this all while making a bit of a play for black voters. This was a peculiar state, for sure. Though Kentucky had been in the union, its postwar landscape was marked by the Lost Cause and a general zeal for the Confederacy. Many of the unionists had been conservatives, still supporting slavery, and they turned sharply on the federal government after African Americans gained recognition of their rights. Kentuckian white supremacists had been split on tactics, and those who believed that the union would protect slavery shed their unionist identity when the government showed that that they had picked the wrong strategy.
We see a Confederate flag flying in the distance. It is the final resting place of many rebel veterans, their thin tombstones etched with the southern cross. The graves ring around a monument to “our Confederate dead” with some flowers laid to the side. It is a good spot to reflect on our amorphous political identities. I think about how Confederate troops marched through this very cemetery in an approach to the state armory, trading shots with unionists across the valley. The men who plundered Kentuckian towns in their quest to uphold their racial order should never simply be called “our Confederate dead.”
We are close to the crown jewel of the Frankfort Cemetery, the grave of the pioneer Daniel Boone and his wife Rebecca. They were originally buried in Missouri, but moved here. The presence of their graves, and those of several famous Kentuckians buried alongside them, was so important to Frankfort residents that it was even used as an argument to keep the town as the state capital– how could we abandon them? And walking back out to Route 60, I am accustomed to passing the names of people I only know for the places named after them. The tombstones read like a jumbled map of Kentucky counties.
Following the road into the valley we are welcomed by a prominent limestone outcropping in the distance. Sweeping into downtown are hills buttressed by concrete and topped by homes whose porches tower over our heads. To the left is the state armory, another castle-like fixture watching over the town. I usually turn to the right here, where Broadway Street cascades down between the Kentucky Historical Society and the old train depot. It was here that, after the war began, a contingent of Confederate volunteers pulled in on a train hollering support for Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy; they were met with a crowd giving opposing chants for the Union, goading the volunteers into unfurling the Confederate flag. As the volunteers went to display the stars and bars, the Unionist crowd threw stones at the car until it chugged away, those on board exchanging gunfire with the surrounding throng of people.
The railroad track splits Broadway in two for the entire length, with the old state capitol to the north opposite a cute row of historic buildings. My favorite haunt is a bookstore on this street called Poor Richard’s, where the attic hides antique books, including periodicals from the Historical Society that reveal the town’s history. It was here that I learned about the fighting at Fort Hill and the civil rights crackdown at Kentucky State, among other things. From the upstairs window I like to look out on Broadway and reflect on the past, trying to piece together everything and the way it connects to the world we’ve inherited. I prefer to view each town as a tapestry of history woven into space; I’ve adjusted myself to this arrangement to such an extent that I feel naked in a place with a past I don’t know.
If we walk out to the old state capitol across from us, we find a plaque marking the spot where Goebel was shot. He wasn’t actually governor when he was hit, though he was sworn in while on his deathbed. The affair of his election started when he introduced an “electoral reform” bill that was a blatant power grab for the Democratic Party. He mandated a state election board, judge of the results and selector of county board members, to be appointed by the legislature. Since the Democrats had control of the legislature, the bill would conveniently give them a stacked advantage; the bill passed in 1898, with an extra provision that the legislature could appeal the board’s decision and make the final call on the election. When the legislature met to appoint the members of the state election board, the Republicans walked out. After a primary full of mischievous political manipulation on Goebel’s part, he won the nomination and was set to face off against the “lily-white” Republican William S. Taylor, whose nomination set off protests from black party members.
At first, it seemed as though Taylor had won. As the board convened and discussed the legitimacy of the results, Taylor encouraged armed Republican partisans to spill into the city in order to “exercise a moral influence on [the] contest.” Louisville & Nashville offered to take them into the city free of charge, and soon enough half a thousand of them were wandering the city with their guns openly displayed. The board’s trimming narrowly kept Taylor in the lead, setting the stage for the Democrats to make their final play. Ushering in the twentieth century, the legislature met to assign a joint committee of eleven people that would eventually decide the election. The names were chosen at random from a shaken box full of names on slips of paper — don’t ask how, but only one of the committee members chosen was a Republican.
In the ensuing outrage, about a thousand armed Republicans flooded into the city, mostly from the mountains out east. Democrats in the city armed themselves in kind, until cooler heads prevailed and Republican leaders called for their supporters to head home. It was in this atmosphere that, on January 30, 1900, Goebel was shot outside of the Capitol. And that evening, the committee recommended by a partisan vote that the wounded man be made governor. Taylor played for time, arguing that an insurrection had occurred that justified adjourning the government to meet in the eastern Kentucky town of London. Soon enough there were two parallel state governments that refused to recognize each other. The situation only sorted itself out after Goebel had died and Taylor fled the state, charged with being an accessory to his opponent’s assassination.
Another important event occurred around Broadway Street that must be mentioned: the riot of 1871. Frankfort wasn’t the only Kentucky town to see riots that year, with similar cases happening in Woodford County, Hickman (where two died), Harrodsburg, Paris, Nicholasville, and Lexington. The riots were a result of an extreme tension settling over Kentucky regarding the newfound ability for black men to vote. After the polls closed in Frankfort, white and black voters camped out on opposite sides of Broadway to throw stones and fire shots at each other. At least two died in the volley. While black Republicans charged that the police tasked with keeping the two groups apart had started the shooting, white members of the community cast their blame on black political leaders like Henry Washington. They supposed that he had fired the first shot in the riot, and Washington was arrested.
As soon as the state militia stopped guarding the jail he was held in, an armed, masked mob of two hundred and fifty stormed it and abducted Washington along with another black man accused of rape. They were both hanged to death.
Multiple lynchings had happened in Frankfort in the years before, in 1866 and 1868 (the victims by the names of Charles and Jim Macklin), and multiple would follow. Two of the later lynchings occurred at Singing Bridge, which is down St. Clair Street from the Old Capitol. The truss bridge was built across the river in 1893 and earned its nickname in the 1930s when the flooring was replaced with a steel gate that hummed with each passing car. In the second year of its existence, a mob abducted a black man named Marshall Boston from his cell and beat him until he confessed to being a rapist. They hanged him from the bridge and riddled him with bullets. In 1909, John Maxey was abducted in a similar manner after being accused of shooting a white man. A crowd of two hundred watched as his tormentors forced him to climb the girders of the bridge and then pushed him to his death. They used his floating corpse as target practice.
Frankfort’s history, like the history of the nation at large, is characterized by a violence that gets swept under the rug in our retelling of the past. The tools we use to hide the past are often idols to an invented history: a Confederacy formed for the cause of state rights or a civil rights movement fulfilled in 1965. In order to get people to accept that today’s political crises exist, they must recognize their antecedents. This is just the easy part. It’s not hard to get a reasonable person in the twenty-first century to denounce lynchings. We must then persuade them that the issues of the past were not defeated but rather evolved, that violence continues today, and that it doesn’t always look like our preconceived notions of what violence is.
One example of violence that deserves to be treated as such can be found just north of Broadway Street, where the neighborhood of Crawfish Bottom used to lie. It was razed and replaced by the “Capital Plaza,” displacing hundreds of families for a series of structures that were mostly demolished just a half a century later. “The Craw” was a majority black community filled with many former slaves as well as German and Irish immigrants; it was a poor neighborhood that many people in other parts of the city attacked for being a bastion of crime and prostitution. Stuck in the lowest lying portion of town, it was always the first part of the city to flood. In 1937, a flood covered most of the town and devastated homes in the Craw. Some citizens tired of habitual disaster fled the area for higher ground, leaving behind abandoned buildings and a declining neighborhood.
In 1955, the Frankfort Slum Clearance and Development Agency was formed. Their efforts were backed by the Frankfort League of Women Voters, who issued a study showing that a disproportionate amount of crimes and fires came from the neighborhood, which generated a mere two percent of the town’s property tax revenue. The next year, a survey by a Lexington city planning firm emphasized that many area homes lacked running water, bathing facilities, and furnaces. Plans for the neighborhood’s ruin marched along, the mayor brushing off criticism by arguing that “the whole city should not be blighted just because a few will be hurt.”
After fourteen agonizing years of “slum clearance” headed by the North Frankfort Urban Renewal Project, Crawfish Bottom was gone, and the city leaders had broken their promise on the amount of public housing provided to residents. On top of the Craw’s grave came a YMCA, a civic center, and a massive office tower that loomed over the surrounding hills. This was the new Capital Plaza, a headache-inducing jungle of concrete with which I first came to associate Frankfort. The office tower seemed designed for the headquarters of an evil villain. Its colorless structure spilled into the surrounding parking garage and fountain area, touching the civic center and YMCA. I used to be morbidly fascinated with the way the bleak atmosphere north of Broadway meshed with the colorful and lively buildings to the south. My disdain for the plaza was on full display. Its uneasy air hung over the town.
My first instinct towards these buildings was shared with the former residents of the neighborhood which the buildings had replaced. In oral interviews, Margaret Ellis and Jim Wallace expressed that, believing in God, they knew that He would “wash that whole thing away.” Mary Helen Berry similarly explained that “we was so in hopes… the state office building… would sink on down. And… down there on the corner of Wilkinson Street… we’d say, ‘Look at the building sink because they took it away from us.'” In 2018, the office tower did just that. It was imploded before a crowd of cheering citizens. The civic center also went.
The civic center so perfectly destroyed was once known as the “Farnham Dudgeon Center,” named after a community leader who supported the destruction of the Craw. In 1965, he commented that there were still “too many people thinking of the area as ‘the Craw.’ We have to overcome this stigma… When our kids grow up they will never know ‘the Bottoms’ were here.” It is with this same attitude that many today hope to to cover up our nation’s past, desiring to shed talk of slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, and more. We have built a false consciousness over the rubble of our true past, and I am equally determined that if God exists He will wash that whole thing away.
Frankfort is not much more notable than the average American town. In every place, there is a rich past waiting to be pieced together and understood in the context of where and how we live today. Looking at history as an unfolding of events in space can help us understand those spaces much better. When I walk around Frankfort, I see an interwoven story of life in America played out through centuries. There are those who want to blind us to that, and they have been largely successful. Who can blame anyone for their blindness in a country that romanticizes heritage for heritage’s sake without even explaining what our heritage is? That’s all I can think when I look out at the hills of south Frankfort where the Klan used to burn their crosses; or when I see the girders of the Singing Bridge, a place whose true meaning will never be shared by most of the thousands of people who cross it every day; or when I imagine the Confederate raiders sheltering behind stone fences on Fort Hill, licensed to execute any white officer in charge of black troops; or approaching the grave of Goebel, a man of a place and era that considered it progressive to enforce segregation so long as it was done with hushed voices. Will people confronted with their society’s history recognize that their society is full of foundational flaws? I don’t think most people will. To them, the past is just a distant happening, divorced from reality.
Micah Lynn, 19, is a sophomore at Kentucky State University. He is a community activist from Versailles.