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Spotlight on Danville: How the community is keeping the city's history alive

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Posted at 5:32 PM, Nov 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-01 08:47:05-05

DANVILLE, Ky. (LEX 18) — The history of Danville is rich in firsts, and the community is working to keep it alive.

The past is etched into the stone of several buildings in the city's downtown. The old building's foundations feature left behind signs in the brick, like the Welch and Wiseman store.

"I love that when you take the time to look [around Danville], you can see things," said AnnYager McCrosky, with the Heart of Danville. "You see these ghosts of our historical past."

The Heart of Danville main street program is working to revitalize and promote Danville's historic downtown.

"We're seeing more and more transformation, and people are understanding the value of these buildings," said McCrosky. "So, we've worked really hard with historic tax but with tax credits, and historic preservation, to help bring these buildings back."

Many in the community are working to bring ghosts of history's past back to life.

The city is home to the first publicly funded school of the deaf. The school is still operating, and the Jacob's Hall museum is constantly updated and restored to showcase its history. It includes a special section on the segregated deaf school for students of color.

Danville is also home to the first abdominal surgery in the world. His house now serves as a museum that showcases the room where the surgery took place.

There's also a lot of the past you can't see in Danville.

Constitution Square in town is said to be the place where Kentucky became the 15th state in the union.

The park is now a replica of what the area would look like at the time. However, it used to be the Black business district. Urban Renewal in the 1960s called for its destruction.

"Most people Black folks could not shop or eat or do anything in white establishments, so they created their own area," said Michael Hughes, President of the Danville-Boyle County African American Historical Society. "There were barbershops, there were grocery stores, there were dental offices. There were doctors' offices, and mostly a lot of restaurants, and people would go there on their own. And they felt comfortable there. They felt safe."

Hughes says the Black business owners had no idea they would lose their businesses at the time.

"They said that white folks would not come to Danville to visit because of the Second Street, so there was a plan to get rid of, and that's what they did," said Hughes. "Urban renewal came in with a plan telling people that they were going to renovate the buildings and sell them back to Black folks, and so they could maintain the building, but that didn't happen. They sold it to the state, and the state sold it to the city, and now you see the park as it looks now."

Instead of losing that history, a partnership between the Heart of Danville, The Danville-Boyle County African American Historical Society, and Centre College partnered to create "Forgotten Landmarks." It's a brochure that marks sites in Danville, with what they would be if a monument or statue were there to tell forgotten African American history.

Two college students in Amy Frederick's class worked on the project, doing the research collecting stories and matching locations.

"What I try to do with that class is to talk about, is to have the students understand that all visual culture, especially monuments, they're not neutral," said Frederick, Assistant Professor of Art History at Centre College. "They're in certain locations in certain places, and they look a certain way for specific reasons. And just as importantly, we need to acknowledge what isn't there, right as much as what is there."

They say it couldn't have been done without the partnerships they formed to make it a reality.

"The thing that I really loved about this project was the fact that we got to work with college students. We got to work with a professor from Centre College. We got to work with people from the African American Historical Society and people from the Heart of Danville. As a community, we worked to bring this project together, and that meant a lot to me. And I think we really learned a lot from each other," said Sara Lamb, volunteer with the Heart of Danville.