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Ky. Historical Society wants to connect dots on Dr. Wendell’s life, Lexington’s narrative

Dr. Thomas Tyler Wendell is shown with his son, John, in his Lexington medical office. (Photo from Kentucky Historical Society)


By Molly Crain
KyForward intern

A practicing physician in Lexington from 1904 until his death in 1953, Dr. Thomas Tyler Wendell was hailed for improving health care for African-Americans at Eastern State Hospital, as well as recognized as a humble servant of the people, including Lexington’s youth.

Now, more than half a century later, the Kentucky Historical Society wants to take a second look at Dr. Wendell’s life — particularly his family’s large collection of group photographs — and connect the dots of Lexington’s larger community narrative.

Senior librarian and reference specialist for KHS, Cheri Daniels, says that Dr. Wendell was involved in other Lexington community organizations, including The Colored Agricultural and Industrial Association, which hosted colored fairs in the area.

“They were wildly popular you know, regionally significant,” said Daniels. “There would be folks that would come from multiple states to compete in these.”

KHS has processed a certificate book of Dr. Wendell’s, which was used to record patron donations for the CAIA. But photographs taken at the fair’s events were separated from these documents until recently.

“Over the winter, we started realizing that there’s a huge gap in what we know about the organization and the events going on,” said Daniels. “One of the events was held at the roller rink, and Booker T. Washington was the guest speaker.”

Another surprising piece of this collection includes the only known photograph of Lucy Murphy, wife of one of the greatest jockeys in American history, Isaac Murphy, Daniels said.

An African-American rider, Isaac Murphy was the first to win the Kentucky Derby three times and continues to hold the highest winning percentage of all time.

“We’re starting to connect the dots,” said Daniels. “We’d like to connect the dots a little bit more between the Wendells and the Murphys.” But there’s still a lot of missing information.”

Earlier this year in February, KHS held a knowledge-sharing event for Dr. Wendell’s collection in Frankfort.

“We got a lot of good feedback from that event,” said Chelsea Compton, KHS’s marketing coordinator. “Some people came from Lexington and the surrounding Frankfort area.” But according to those present, there were many knowledgeable lay-historians who couldn’t make it.

Next Friday, June 14 from 3-6 p.m., KHS will host another event at the Pilgrim Baptist Church on Jefferson St., to see if members of the Lexington community have something to remember in Dr. Wendell’s collection.

“By having it downtown we’re hoping to connect to any of the local organizations that still exist,” said Daniels. “Anybody that might have some memories of folks that went to school in the area.”

To add interest for Lexingtonians, one of the photos depicts a group of ladies on the stairs of St. Paul’s A.M.E. Church, nearby Dr. Wendell’s former home on Third Street not far from the Lyric Theatre.

Daniels is hopeful more people will come to this second event and help KHS tell a more complete story of Dr. Wendell’s influence and of the African-American community in Lexington.

And sooner rather than later.

“We’ve got this window of time where there’s still some people around who might be able to give us information,” said Daniels. “We want to make sure that we take the opportunity right now, don’t hang on to this any longer. You know, make sure that we get as much information as we can.”

Dr. Wendell’s collection is available online here, and each image has a box for anyone to add comments and help KHS learn more. A few of those photos are also available below.

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Molly Crain is a recent graduate of Transylvania University.

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