From the BBC Grant Community: Facing Our History in Kentucky
By The Rev. Kelly Kirby
The word “Becoming” is key in the phrase “Becoming the Beloved Community.” When we applied for a seed grant in 2019, we had a vision for comprehensive, dismantling racism work that would take place over three years. Despite the setbacks we experienced due to the pandemic, our diocese has uncovered many discoveries related to our history of racial relations.
The archivist of the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky, the Rev. Jim Wilkinson, created a comprehensive history of race relations in the commonwealth and in the Diocese of Kentucky entitled “Great Meadow.” The Shawnee tribes north of the Ohio River and the Cherokee and Chickasaw tribes south of the Cumberland River called the land that we now refer to as Kentucky the Great Meadow. The name, Kentucky, is derived from “the Iroquois language spoken by the Cherokee ‘ken-tah-ten,’ which means ‘land of tomorrow’ or ‘endless meadow land.’” Wilkinson’s presentation traces our diocesan history following the removal of American Indians from their land through the first priests and important legislation, including that slavery was made legal in the first Kentucky Constitution in 1792. In 1794, a statute gave free or freed Negroes legal equality to whites, and beginning in 1798, the second Kentucky Constitution changed the status of free people of color by placing limitations on their rights, including voting and self-defense.
He continues then to talk about the building of Christ Church Cathedral in the 1820s. Of the 18 original leaders, nine were slave owners. The actual construction was done by four construction companies; the two companies that supplied bricks and stone had slaves; the two companies that supplied scantling (framing of lumber) and masonry (stone and brickwork) did not.
We now know that the first African American deacon ordained in the diocese was the Rev. Joseph Atwell, and we know about the reconciliation work that the diocese engaged in after the Civil War ended, thanks to this history. The first African American deacon to serve in the diocese was the Rev. Aaron McNeil. His legacy continues in the ministry named after him in Hopkinsville to this day. Those who read Wilkinson’s work now all know the powerful story of St. George’s Community Center in downtown Louisville that welcomed a group of African American boys to play ball in the long-closed gym. That ministry grew to serve 600 youth in the 1960s.
Wilkinson’s work was shared with the diocese at our convention in 2020, and congregations were invited to discover their racial relations histories. At the parish where I serve, St. Matthew’s, our archivist was up for the challenge. Lee Fletcher spearheaded the work to create a report titled “Racial Relations-St. Matthew’s.” Fletcher’s report reveals a common thread of justice-seeking ministries engaged throughout our 74-year history.
Facing our history as it relates to racist activity and anti-racist activism and ministry helps us to look at the whole truth. This was life-giving work in the Diocese of Kentucky, and I look forward to seeing how it will inform our desire to do the work of Becoming Beloved Community in the future.
Photo from the Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky Facebook page.
The Rev. Kelly Kirby serves at St. Matthew’s in Louisville, Kentucky. She co-chairs Empower West, a coalition of Black and white pastors seeking economic justice for Black residents.