Wednesday, February 29, 2012 William E. Thomas Seeks to Preserve Slave-Built Church as Venue for African American Music

[TOP: William Ethaniel Thomas MIDDLE: Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Chamber Music; The Coleridge Ensemble; AFKA SK-543 (1998). BOTTOM: “Rev. L.H. McIntyre, retired pastor of First African Baptist Church, tells attendees at a reception Feb. 25 launching the First African Foundation about the history of the church, which traces its roots back to about 1790.” TOM EBLEN — Herald-Leader]

On May 27, 2008 AfriClassical posted: William E. Thomas Conducts Farewell Concert of Cambridge Community Chorus.”  Former Music Department Chair at Phillips Academy Andover, Thomas is now organizing an effort to buy a former church in Lexington, Kentucky built primarily by slaves, and convert it to a cultural center including a concert hall which would be a venue for African American music. While at Andover, William E. Thomas played important roles in two recordings of works by classical composers of African descent. One was Samuel Coleridge-Taylor: Chamber Music, on which he played the cello and for which he wrote the liner notes. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is featured at

Tom Eblen
“One of Lexington's most significant black-history landmarks would become a concert hall, a cultural center and a museum if a new non-profit foundation can raise several million dollars to buy, restore and operate it. The First African Foundation has reached a tentative agreement with Central Christian Church to buy the former First African Baptist Church building at the corner of Short and Deweese streets.” 

“William Thomas, a Lexington native who moved back in 2008 after retiring as music department chair at the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, said he was inspired to organize the effort after reading about the building's amazing history two years ago. The Italianate-style sanctuary, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a handsome building. What makes it amazing is that most of the people who built and paid for it in the 1850s were slaves.

“First African Baptist Church and Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church trace their roots to Peter Durrett, a slave who in 1790 started the first black church west of the Allegheny Mountains. Durrett died in 1823 and was succeeded by London Ferrill, a slave who gained his freedom and was widely respected by blacks and whites alike.” “Because slave families were often split up by sale, many walked miles each Sunday to attend services at First African Church — and have their only opportunity to see each other.”

“Architect Gregory Fitzsimons, who developed a renovation plan for the foundation, said the building is in good condition. Still, it would take about $4 million buy, renovate and enlarge the building for the foundation's proposed uses. Thomas also wants to raise several million more dollars to operate and endow the building and programs. The old sanctuary, now used as a gymnasium, would become a 400-seat concert hall. Thomas would like the proposed concert hall to host local musicians and visiting ensembles that highlight African-American music. One such group is the American Spiritual Ensemble, a Lexington-based international touring company founded by Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky's Opera Theatre program.

"'It's something we would certainly consider,' McCorvey said. 'I was very impressed with the potential of what that facility could become. The church has a wonderful history. It's certainly worth preserving.' Thomas, who taught at Phillips Andover for 36 years, spent three years as artistic director of Project STEP, a classical music academy for gifted minority students in Boston run by the Boston Symphony and the New England Conservatory of Music. Thomas would like to start a similar program here.

“'Fiscally, we're in tough shoes, but this building is a national treasure,' Thomas said of the foundation's ambitious fund-raising goal. 'To know that folks in bondage committed their resources, which were so limited, to build such a remarkable structure inspires us to do great things with it.'"

Comment by email:
William Thomas is immediately one of our major heroes: a splendid musician, teacher, administrator, and activist, much of whose work is veiled in modesty.  When this re-consecration takes place, his name should be remembered!  [Dominique-René de Lerma,]

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