Peter Durrett

TALKING TO MYSELF: 18 FEBRUARY 2013  Yesterday, two historic congregations in downtown Lexington--my church which is First United Methodist located on High Street and St. Paul AME on Upper--joined together for a worship service as we do about once or twice a year.  Ours is a relationship of long standing. First Church traces its beginnings to 1789; St. Paul AME broke off from First Church in 1820. Though both congregations have members of various ethic groups, St. Paul's remains mostly a black congregation and First Church is mostly white. There are those who would condem both churches for that circumstance in the 21st Century, but our differences are more about style of worship  than race, I think, and certainly not about creed. Both churches minister to the social, physical and spiritual needs of the city, especially in the downtown area, and in our common faith we sustain each other. 

As old as our two churches are, however, they are not the oldest in the city. First Presbyterian claims to have been established in 1784 http://www.fpclex.org/history.html and the Episcopalians and Baptists arrived about the same time. Several denominations actually trace their origins to The Great Revival at nearby Cane Ridge in 1801. Among those are The Disciples of Christ and The Independent Christian Church. http://www.visitlex.com/idea/worship.php All agree, however, that the first black man to preach in the Kentucky territory was Peter Durrett in about 1781 or 82. About 1790, he established First African American Baptist Church in Lexington, the first church for blacks in Kentucky, and the third oldest in the United States. Black history month seems a good time to re-visit an essay I wrote about Old Peter some years ago.

Peter Durrett

Elijah Craig’s name is familiar to most people with a passing interest in the history of Kentucky because  he gets credit, right or wrong, for inventing bourbon whiskey.  While historians continue to debate that legend, no one disputes that Craig  founded Rittenhouse Academy, which later became  Georgetown College , or that his leadership in The Traveling Church made central Kentucky a Baptist stronghold that continues into the 21st century. What few remember, however, is the story of Peter Durrett, the Craig family’s black slave who assisted in guiding The Traveling Church over the Wilderness Trail.  Though they make an unlikely duo, Craig and Durrett’s journey into Kentucky altered the course of history, and their influence on the Bluegrass state lingers into the 21st century.

Jailed in Virginia for preaching the gospel without a license from the Anglican Church, Elijah, and his brothers Lewis and Joseph, persuaded their free thinking followers to move west to the frontier.  The Revolutionary War was not quite over, but in Kentucky, their argument went, the Baptists would be released from Anglican tyranny and, in the bargain would find fertile land virtually for the taking. So, in 1781, the entire congregation of Upper Spotsylvania Baptist Church packed up their wagons and headed to the wilderness territory of Kentucky.  The goods and chattels they took with them included a number of slaves.

Few migrations in American history compare to this exodus of Baptists.  Five to six hundred people left the comfort of their Virginia homes in that first caravan to wander through the wilderness with the Craigs.   They underestimated the physical challenge of the mountains that lay between them and their “Promised Land” and had to abandon their wagons and proceed on foot.  They also underestimated the Indians, the disease, the exhaustion, the hunger, and perhaps most of all, the loneliness they would face along the way. 

However, unlike many pioneers who moved to the Kentucky territory in those earliest years, the members of The Traveling Church knew exactly where they planned to settle before leaving Virginia.   This was in large part because of Peter Durrett’s work.  On behalf of his masters, the Craig family, Peter Durrett had scouted the Kentucky wilderness a few years earlier.   Historians are vague on whether he traveled in the company of Captain William Ellis or whether he traveled alone.  Most likely he did both, arriving in Kentucky with Ellis’ attachment, then setting off alone to explore the vast bluegrass wilderness.   He had been charged with the task of “improving” land for the Craigs to claim and planting corn crops in advance of their eventual arrival.  After a narrow escape in an Indian attack, Durrett returned to Virginia with a report of his reconnaissance, and to assist the Craigs’ congregation on their great journey.

 One can only guess at the mind and character of  Peter Durrett.   Surely, he was a man of intelligence and judgment for the Craigs to charge him with such an onerous and important job.  Certainly, he was a leader trusted by both the white and black people in The Traveling Church entourage.  Ranck’s 1891 history says that Durrett “frequently assisted Capt. Ellis as a guide, for he had traveled the road before.”   

His stature among the black slaves who made the journey to Kentucky was monumental.  Ranck writes, “And at times there was a mighty lifting up of voices among the negroes for ‘Uncle Peter’ was with them and he set the example.”  Ranck credits the singing of the black slaves with raising the spirits of their white owners during the worst moments of desolation in the wilderness. 

When the weary travelers finally arrived in Kentucky, they put down enduring roots.  They multiplied physically and spiritually, planting many Baptist congregations throughout the region primarily in what is now Fayette, Scott, Owen, Franklin, and Garrard Counties.  They spawned generations of descendants who stayed put on the land, and today, many residents of central Kentucky, both black and white, can trace one or more of their ancestors to The Traveling Church migrants and their slaves.

“Uncle Peter,” later called “Old Captain,” was, like his Craig masters, an eloquent and fiery Baptist preacher.  Historians believe he was the first black man to preach a sermon in the Kentucky territory.   Certainly, he was the first black man to establish and lead an organized black congregation in Kentucky.  The First African American Baptist Church was founded in Lexington around 1790 – the third oldest black church in America --  and Peter Durrett was its first minister.

Today, the location of his Lexington church is on the National Register of Historic Places. But no historical marker can define the influence of a man such as Peter Durrett.  The First African American Baptist Church became a powerful congregation in Lexington, and in the years before the Civil Was it was “an essential link” in the Underground Railroad.  A hundred or more years later, it was a hub of Civil Rights activity in the Bluegrass region.  Today, three vital churches -- Pleasant Green Baptist, Main Street Baptist and First African American Baptist -- trace their beginnings to the church that Durrett established.

Like his Craig family owners, Peter Durrett left his handprint on the shape of Kentucky’s character.

[George W. Ranck, “The Travelling Church,” Louisville: Press of Baptist Book Concern, 1891.  Doris Wilkinson, “African American Heritage Trail in Downtown Lexington,” and Amos Jones et. al. “Historic African American Churches of Lexington,” Visitlex.com; research and editorial assistance, Sherry Chandler and Ernie Stamper.]