LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — The area next to the old courthouse in Lexington called Cheapside brings much pain to some Lexingtonians as it was a place slaves were traded decades ago.
During the 2020 protests in downtown Lexington, some protesters called for the area to be given a new name as the dark history of the space brings back pain.
Community activist group Take Back Cheapside Co-founder Russell Allen explained, "During this time, especially, it's important for us to go ahead and honor that and begin the--whatever the process needs to be. Completely and fully washing that place of its history--of the heinous history. Making sure there's a place for people to learn about that so we don't repeat that, but allowing that space, especially since it's a communal space for Lexington. Allowing that space to just truly be a neutral space."
The idea that Cheapside is not a neutral space goes back more than two centuries to when Lexington was founded and Cheapside earned its name from a marketplace in London, England.
"The word 'cheap' in old Saxon meant 'to sell.' So, it would be the same as, as some place on the coast naming a place Harbor Town, because it was the town with the harbor. So this is the 'for sale' side of the courthouse," explained Lexington History Museum President and Chief Historian Foster Ockerman.
Ockerman said the space was created to be a marketplace, "Once a month, people would gather in the public square to trade horses, to swap knives, to do community commerce, and eventually we built our first market house right here on Cheapside where the pavilion is today. So today's Farmers Market has actually returned home to the original market house site."
It was not until the early 1830s that slaves were sold at Cheapside during a health crisis when many Lexingtonians were selling property. In 1830s America, slaves were considered property.
"Slave sales really started in 1833-1834 when a cholera epidemic ironically, another epidemic, killed about 600 Lexingtonians," explained Ockerman. "Back then you couldn't borrow money long term and so houses were foreclosed on because the breadwinner died [from the disease]. Farms, horses and slaves were foreclosed on and a great number were sold by court order at the courthouse steps. And that's where that really started."
For decades the sale of slaves at Cheapside persisted until the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and more years passed.
Almost two centuries later, in 2015, Take Back Cheapside was instrumental in the removal of several confederate statues in the Cheapside area but Allen explained there is still work to be done.
Allen said, "We want to see that place to be a place where people can take that whole area can take their families. Black people can go and comfortably gather without worrying about being harassed or being in an event that is not tailored to them--Thursday Night Live. So there's still a lot of work to be done in that space."
He suggested adding Black-owned businesses to the area and ensuring there is black representation on the event boards. Allen also said it is important that his group supports the young people who protest in downtown Lexington this year.
"I want to help those kids, if, if there's an opportunity to speak with them. If not, I just want to be supportive. From our position, as far as what they want to do pushing for a name change. Other than that, just continue to examine that spot," explained Allen. "Continue to examine like what Lexington is doing in that space, and, and knowing the history of it being a slave auction block, and just always asking ourselves the question. Is this something we should be doing in the space of a former slave auction block?"