Arts & Culture

Monument honors the work of Lexington abolitionists Lewis and Harriet Hayden

Lewis and Harriet Hayden memorialized in a monument
Lexington Freedom Train organizers plan to unveil this monument (concept at left) to Lexington abolitionists Lewis and Harriet Hayden in mid 2025. Photos provided.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 18, 2024) A proposed monument honoring a Kentucky couple who escaped enslavement and later became a significant force in the abolition movement has significant University of Kentucky connections. 

Vanessa Holden, Ph.D., an associate professor of African American and Africana studies; Frank X Walker, professor of English; Garry Bibbs, professor of art studio, metal arts and sculpture; and historian Yvonne Giles, who received an honorary doctorate in humane letters from UK in 2019, each are playing a role in making the Lexington Freedom Train monument reality and ensuring that what it represents lives far past the unveiling.  

Organizers of the project hope to dedicate the finalized monument in time for Juneteenth in 2025. 

The Lexington Freedom Train project seeks to memorialize Lewis and Harriet Hayden, who escaped enslavement in 1844, ultimately settling in Boston, Massachusetts, where they became prominent abolition leaders. The Haydens helped more than 100 enslaved people who had escaped to the North, sheltering them in their Boston home, which served as a station on the Underground Railroad. In 1863, Lewis Hayden persuaded his friend, Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew, to push for the inclusion of Black men in the Union army. Eventually three regiments of Black soldiers, many recruited by Lewis Hayden, represented Massachusetts in the war that would end slavery. The story of those soldiers was depicted in the Academy Award-winning 1989 film “Glory.” 

After the war, Lewis Hayden became the first Black man elected to the Massachusetts legislature. 

On May 24, the monument to the Haydens took a large step forward with the announcement that the Freedom Train selection committee and Lexington nonprofit organization LexArts had selected renowned Jamaican sculptor Basil Watson to create the monument to Lewis and Harriet Hayden.  

“The process of choosing an artist for the Lexington Freedom Train was efficient and inclusive, with a diverse selection committee narrowing down from 96 artists to four exceptional finalists,” said selection committee chair Larry Kezele. “The final choice, Basil Watson, has our enthusiastic support.” 

The monument received even more support recently with the announcement of a $245,000 grant from the Lexington Public Art Commission, an agency of the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government. 

“This puts us in site of our goal, with $70,000.00 or so to go to help fund a full-scale educational program for the project and miscellaneous minor costs,” Kezele said. “This ensures that we can move forward.” 

The monument will sit on a parcel of land at the southeast corner of North Limestone and Fourth Streets, on the property of Lexington Traditional Magnet School. Its anticipated completion in mid-2025 is expected to align with the 250th anniversary of Lexington’s founding, according to a press release from the Lexington Freedom Train project. 

“Mr. Watson’s design was really positive and wonderful," said Bibbs, who teaches sculpture in the UK School of Art and Visual Studies. “I think he captured the essence of the conclusion of the history of their journey. (The Haydens) are hand in hand, celebrating freedom. You look at the piece and feel like it’s breathing. Very few artists can do that. Mr. Watson did that.” 

Diana Martin, a member of the Lexington Freedom Train education committee, says having this monument is important for Lexington and Kentucky, as is the documentation of an Underground Railroad network in Kentucky.  

Alicestyne Turley’s book ‘The Gospel of Freedom’ talks about the recorded history of the Underground Railroad,” said Martin, a retired English professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College. “Until Dr. Turley’s research was published, we had little documented evidence of Kentucky’s rich history of our own Underground Railroad. It was as if enslaved people on the way to freedom pole vaulted over Kentucky. And that’s not true.” 

Walker, who is on the selection committee and the education committee, agrees that it’s time for Kentucky — and the Haydens — to get recognition for its role in helping enslaved people escape to the North. 

“The cumulative celebration of the Haydens in Boston has been significant and deserving,” Walker said, “and it’s time Lexington caught up, especially since their heroic story begins in Lexington.” 

To ensure Kentucky’s legacy — as well as the Haydens’ — as integral to the Underground Railroad, the Lexington Freedom Train education committee set forth goals to make sure that the monument serves as a learning tool for generations of Kentucky students.  

Fayette County Schools has been very supportive of this project,” Martin said. “We would like to offer and pay Fayette County teachers to create lesson plans that will address this topic, and we would house those on our website.” 

“The Hayden's have such an important story and learning about slavery through enslaved peoples' resistance is powerful,” said Holden. “Helping the Haydens was a huge risk for the abolitionists, white and Black, who aided them. Students should know that people right here in Lexington were willing to stand up against the injustice of slavery.” 

Martin says the education committee would also like to see the Haydens represented in the Kentucky Chautauqua series. Kentucky Chautauqua is an initiative of Kentucky Humanities that brings to life, through the performance of solo actors, famous and unknown figures from Kentucky’s past. 

Bibbs, who served on the selection committee that awarded the commission to Watson, said the sense of community within the committee was ever present. 

We have had one of the best, diverse, complete committees I have ever worked on,” he said. “When I say ‘complete,’ I mean artists, architects, writers, historians, publishers, directors of arts organizations, young, old, Black, white, straight, gay. Anything you can consider, we had. 

“It allowed everyone to listen to each other and see that each perspective was based on the same history.” 

Holden said the monument will help provide a launching pad from which to encourage discussion and education about Lexington’s history related to slavery.  

Often in a place like Lexington, where slavery was such an important part of the economy, it can be hard to determine which sites of slavery to mark. Often sites of slavery go without any indication of who once lived and worked there in bondage,” she said. “This monument will bring attention to Lexington's robust history of slavery, resistance and abolitionism. Visual markers, like this monument, will invite the public into the story. Drawing attention to the Hayden's dynamic and inspiring story allows us to work through all of the complexities of Lexington's history while honoring two great Kentuckians who impacted U.S. History.” 

For more information about Juneteenth events and programs taking place in Lexington, click here

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