Andover article about William Thomas

For William Thomas, A New Labor of Love

by Sally Holm

(Read in Issuu | Read/download PDF)

From his podium, the cellist and passionate conductor William Thomas wielded his baton across the orchestras and choruses of 34 years of Andover student musicians, creating glorious and moving music experiences for thousands of audiences worldwide. Now 61, challenged with health issues and confined to a wheelchair, he is wielding this passion to save his childhood church in Lexington, Kentucky from the wrecking ball.

This is the church where Thomas first performed with his cello often accompanied by his cousin Josephine. And every year there was the Christmas pageant where little William was “permanently a shepherd,” he laughs. “It was a nurturing community where we worshipped. The church was our village.”

But this is no ordinary church, and this is not just a sentimental retirement project. The object of his passion is the significant black history landmark building constructed and paid for by slaves in the 1850s. The former First African Baptist Church at the corner of Short and Deweese streets is a handsome brick structure with towering columns and high, arched windows, with gothic Arabic-style balcony arches and a listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Thomas lights up when he recounts the history of First African: founded in 1790 by the slave Peter Durrett who started the first black church west of the Alleghenies—in what Thomas calls “Daniel Boone country”; built under the leadership of his successor London Ferrill, who baptized thousands and who became a hero to blacks and whites when he risked his life to care for everyone during a cholera epidemic in Lexington. Slave families, often split up by sale, walked miles to attend Sunday services here and to spend precious time with each other. In the late 1800s, Lexington’s black population was significant—nearly half that of the city—and nearly 2,000 of them were parishioners of First African.

Retiring from Andover in 2008, Thomas moved home to Lexington. By then First African had moved on to a newer building and the old landmark had been sold to a neighboring white church and turned into a day-care center—most of its beautiful arched windows bricked up, its Italianate sanctuary stripped to ac¬commodate a gymnasium. “Every time I went by it, I was just sick,” he says. But rather than despair, he put his imagination to work. Why not return the site to its place at the heart of the African American community?

He imagined a multipurpose cultural center on that inner-city corner. There would be a 400-seat concert hall for black music from Kentucky and the wider world in the sanctuary. A museum of Lexington’s—and Kentucky’s—rich black history would be developed there with facilities to honor the largely unknown role of black jockeys in Kentucky’s fabled horse industry. An art gallery would feature famous black artists like Lexington native Isaac Hathaway, as well as contemporary works. He included an archive of records to enable African Americans to learn their own history.

He found a fellow dreamer in local historian Yvonne Giles, founder and keeper of a small museum devoted to Kentucky’s black community and the woman who almost single-handedly salvaged the historic African Cemetery No. 2. There rest the remains of many of the Massachusetts 54th regiment of black soldiers from the Civil War, “buffalo soldiers,” as well as the unheralded jockeys and grooms of the tracks.

A Wild and Fortuitous Coincidence

Then in the summer of 2009 came urgency. A rumor circulated that the building was going to sold to a developer and torn down. Thomas and Giles knew they had to find a way to buy it. They gathered some prominent white Lexingtonians who might lend a hand—Pam Miller, former mayor and trustee of the white church that owned the building; Dan Rowland, a University of Kentucky history professor and advisor to the Bluegrass Historic Trust who was leading the opposition to the developer’s plans; and VanMeter Pettit, well-respected architect, preservationist, and son of the popular longtime mayor. They soon discovered they had more in common than a belief in Thomas’s and Giles’s dream. All had strong connections to Andover! Rowland was Class of ’58, Pettit graduated in 1985. Miller is the PA parent of Alex ’83, who played violin in Thomas’s symphony and chamber orchestras.

Pettit loved Andover in spite of the “culture shock” he encountered there. He brought his Kentucky drawl and a lot of Southern baggage with him—hanging a Confederate flag in his Rockwell room, for instance. He couldn’t understand why his new friend Sid Smith ’85 didn’t like it, though Smith had a poster of Malcolm X on his wall. They two talked it through. “That experience was one of many that completely altered my narrative and radically changed my perspective, and I came from very liberal parents!” Pettit says. Today, sitting around Thomas’s porch table scattered with blueprints and pizza crusts, there is a warm, easy camaraderie between the two.

PA connections always have fired Thomas up. His love of Andover is unmistakable and his history intertwined. He was offered a position after graduate school in 1974 through Sue and Bob Lloyd, both faculty at the time, whom he had met during a summer job at the Marrwood Music School in western Massachusetts. At PA, he found he loved working with like-minded people of color. He grew proud as he learned of Andover’s roles in abolitionism. Most importantly, he says, Andover was where he says he learned about being black. He felt empowered by his black colleagues and from them learned how “to stir things up.” He helped start the Sojourner Truth Scholarship Fund to benefit a boarding student of color each year. And he was thrilled to meet a young Christopher Shaw ’78 (now chair of the history and social sciences department) when he learned that Shaw’s great-great-great-uncle was none other than Robert Gould Shaw, the courageous young Union officer who led the Massachusetts 54th Regiment.

But this current challenge may be the steepest of his life. Together, he and his 10-member board, armed with a 5013c and endorsements from the UK, the Bluegrass Trust, and a variety of foundations, are working to raise roughly $4 million to buy, renovate, and enlarge the building. (Thomas wants to try to raise $1 to $2 million more to operate and endow the proposal.) To date $60,000 has been raised, and a $100,000 matching grant is in place. But the deadline just to purchase the building—for $800,000— looms next year. Various fundraisers have been held, including one last June in Cambridge, Mass., where Thomas had led the Cambridge Choir during many of his Andover years. Others are planned, and proposals with several large foundations are pending.

The proposal has generated considerable excitement in Lexington, Thomas says, but support so far has been more verbal than monetary. “This landmark must be preserved,” he says adamantly, “for African Americans who feel robbed of their history but who are hungry now to learn. This is their opportunity! It’s also a means for both races to explore our mutual history that has been made so uncomfortable by slavery. Our history has never been examined by the white community and is unknown to the black communi¬ty. It will add insult to injury if we miss this opportunity.”

Pettit is equally passionate. As extraordinary as the building itself is, he says, the opportunity it represents to recap¬ture and educate the community to its lost history is a once in a lifetime thing. “It took the slave community 26 years to complete this church. Our challenge is nothing compared to what they went through to build it. I believe in this mission, and I believe in William. Even if it’s a long shot, if we follow our passion, we’ll make it happen.”

Staring out the window of the gutted sanctuary in a rare foray from his wheelchair, Thomas gets wistful. The community that worshipped here gave so much, and gives so much, he muses, “we need to step up and give back. All my training and work at Andover in music and my love of art has led me to this point.” He’s fighting tears now. “I feel that this is my destiny.”

(Originally published in Andover, the magazine of Phillips Academy)

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