31 January 2005

Kentucky, Liberia?

The Sun Shines Bright in Liberia, Too 
Old Kentucky home in Africa offers travelers rare connection

LEXINGTON, Ky. — There were moments in Liberia, as Ernie Martin peered through the viewfinder of his video camera, when the Kentucky in Africa seemed as close to the Kentucky of his birth as a hug, a handshake or a song.

"When we met Mary Dixon and she broke into her version of `My Old Kentucky Home,' that was the moment of connection," said Martin, a Kentucky Educational Television producer and videographer. "They treated us like it was a family homecoming."

Martin had been hoping for such a moment for several years, as he combed over bits of history about a colony called Kentucky, Liberia, that was founded in the early 1830s by former slaves from our commonwealth.

The 40-square-mile area once known as Kentucky now is generally known by the name of its former capital and largest town, Clay-Ashland, which took its name from a founder of the American Colonization Society, statesman Henry Clay, and his Lexington estate, Ashland.

"WHAT IMPRESSED me most about it was the hills," Martin said. "Every place else was really flat, until I got to Kentucky. Coming up the St. Paul River from Monrovia on a boat, it looked like the kind of place you'd want to stop and stay if you were from Kentucky. It was a beautiful spot."

As Martin approached Clay-Ashland — 170 years after the first of more than 600 colonists arrived from the United States — he saw more churches than houses. Most of the outlying houses in the area of about 20,000 people were mud and bamboo huts and structures ravaged by more than 20 years of civil war. But to Martin's surprise, there were a number of once-grand dwellings reminiscent of Kentucky architecture in the main town.

And everywhere there were friendly people who greeted him and his trip coordinator, attorney Mark Paxton of Lexington.

"They had no idea we were coming," Martin said. "The first words I said were, `Greetings from Kentucky in America!' About 12 people gathered around, and they just kept coming."

Mary Dixon, a deaconess at the First Baptist Church of Clay-Ashland, knew the story of Kentucky, Liberia, and understood why Martin had come.

"We have been praying for this day, that one day we would be able to see somebody — someone would come from Kentucky," Dixon said on camera. "... We want them to know that we still live in the city of Kentucky. Our history is a great history that we can never forget, about Kentucky."

AS A CHILD, Dixon, who is in her 40s, could remember a community "induction program" in which she heard a woman singing, "Take me back to my old Kentucky home."

"She was dressed like she was coming from Kentucky," Dixon told Martin. "She had on this long dress, puffed sleeves, and she had her hair fixed in that style, and she told us that's how the immigrants came and they were dressed."

Baptist church pastor Jeremiah Walker, who is much older, said he could remember hearing local bands playing Stephen Foster's version of "My Old Kentucky Home."

At least two of Liberia's presidents were descendants of colonists from Kentucky. One of Martin's hosts was Benoni Urey, who said he has ancestral connections to colonists from Princeton, Ky.

In Monrovia, Liberia's capital, Martin found Kentucky-fried chicken on a menu. Not KFC, but the restaurant's own recipe. He found roads with familiar names and a river named "Farmington," and he heard of a town called "Lexington."

There once were keepsakes in the region that could be traced to the early settlers from Kentucky, Martin was told. But the only one that he found to have survived the looting of the civil war was a cast-iron farm implement that had been brought from the commonwealth by the family of former Liberian President William David Coleman, who came from Lexington. The unidentified tool, made in Seneca, N.Y., is now used for cracking palm nuts and is stored at a police station.

LOCAL RESIDENTS told Martin that a man named George Washington, who had grown up in Clay-Ashland, had immigrated to Kentucky a few years ago and had written to say, "I'm back in my old home, Kentucky in America." Martin said he hopes to locate Washington, if he still lives in Kentucky.

"I promised that I would send them pictures and documents that they may have never had or may have lost because of the war," Martin said.

"Oh, I would like to send (Kentuckians) greetings," Mary Dixon told Martin during an interview. "And tell them we are proud to see our brothers come back to find out about us. I will be happy if, as things get better, we will have an exchange relationship. I wish that, when I get there, I get to Kentucky and be able to meet with my people."

Martin expects his documentary on Kentucky, Liberia, to air in June on KET's weekly series, Kentucky Life.

Byron Crawford's column appears on the Metro page Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. You can reach him at (502) 582-4791 or e-mail him at bcrawford@courier-journal.com. You can also read his columns at www.courier-journal.com.


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