Historic Church Preserves Stop on Underground Railroad

Jul 30, 2012

At the Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lexington, Reverend Troy Thomas uses history as an inspirational guide for his congregation. Before the Civil War, the church was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and helped many slaves travel the last leg of their journey to freedom.

On a Sunday in July, several people fan themselves to keep away the heat in the church.  The air conditioning system had just been stolen the week before, so the service starts earlier to keep away from the midday heat, which would be undoubtedly worse. The Reverend Troy Thomas tells people not to worry, saying that it will be plenty warm where the robber is going, which draws a laugh from the congregation.

The church service is filled with organ music, accompanied by a keyboard, and a drum set. When it is time for the sermon, Reverend Thomas is loud and passionate as he talks about Paul’s predicament in jail.

At the conclusion of the service, the minister walks up a narrow staircase. The walk up is slow and he needs to be careful not to misstep.  At the top is a small room. It’s hot, grey, has one window, and barely enough room for five people.  Before the Civil War, runaway slaves sought sanctuary here.

“Understand is not…their size was not like our size is today. So the comfort ability could seem like “now how could five or seven people be up here?” But they didn’t have much. They didn’t come with luggage like in traveling. They left plantations with what they had,” said Thomas.

At the time, Reverend Thomas says both the congregation and the preacher knew church was a stop on the underground railway, and they would remain silent. Runaway slaves would hide in the room for several days, before a cart arrived to take them north. Once the cart arrived, a bell was rung and the runaways had only five minutes to get out.  As for being tracked by slave catchers, the fugitives had a clever way of masking their scent.

“This used to be also the pound area what we call the dog pound; uh the city pound was right next to the church. So…stray animals…and so that helped the slaves because they would come through that and they would lose their scent by just walking in dung and everything else,” Thomas said.

Then it’s down the staircase and over to the education wing at Saint Paul’s. Ever since it was established in 1840, St. Paul has never suffered major damage, so, the original building remains intact. 

In the classroom, Reverend Thomas shares the story of one runaway slave who was nearly trapped in Lexington.

 “One couldn’t make it, couldn’t get out, and actually had to stay. One of the members took them in for about three weeks until the next group came. They kind of did it by full moon traveling because it was easier to see, because it’s very dark and you couldn’t really travel with lanterns. And so everything was done, you know, undercover,” said Thomas.

The Church has repeatedly played a part in African American history. George Lewis Clark, the person who inspired the character of Uncle Tom from Uncle Tom’s Cabin had his funeral there. Plans were laid there for a teachers college that would train African Americans. Eventually, it was built in Frankfort, and is today known as Kentucky State University.

“It’s important because you have to continue to tell the story. A lot of times even as we have young people come and even older people come into the community and find out about it, they want to you know retain the history. And it’s important because it’s our history, it’s the history of America not just African-American history, it’s the history of America,”said Reverend Troy Thomas.

On the highest stained glass window in the church, there’s a small ruby implanted in the center circle. And that, in a sense represents what Saint Paul’s African Methodist Episcopal Church is, a small, but unique, and important gem in history.