African American News and Genealogy

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Sunday, October 30, 2005

Bluegrass had its own Rosa Parks

By Merlene DavisHERALD-LEADER COLUMNIST Today, Rosa Parks, the small woman who stood tall against oppression by keeping her seat, will be the first woman and second black American to lie in honor in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. It was that simple act of defiance, her refusal to allow segregation to continue unchallenged, that led to the continued shattering of long-held demeaning beliefs. And although her refusal to give up her seat is the most well-known act of defiance, it definitely was not the first. Bill Stephens, a volunteer for the Hopewell Museum in Paris and a Kentucky history buff, called to invite me over for a history lesson. Sure enough, more than 70 years before Parks, we in Kentucky had our own rebel of sorts who set off quite a firestorm as well. On June 8, 1883, the Rev. Elisha W. Green, a former slave who had founded Baptist churches in small communities throughout the Bluegrass, declined to give up his seat on a train to Paris from Millersburg, and was roughed up by a couple of white men, including The Rev. George T. Gould. Gould was the president of the Millersburg Female College, and he had boarded the train with several young women from the school. Gould claimed his sense of chivalry was challenged when Green refused to give his seat to one of the young women in Gould's party. Fortunately for those of us who came along much later, much of the ensuing exchanges played out in area newspapers and were later quoted in Green's memoir, Life of the Rev. Elisha Green. See, Green was no ordinary black man. Born in Bourbon County in 1816, Green was one of the first African-American ministers in Kentucky. Around 1848, he founded the First African Baptist Church in Maysville, which is now Bethel Baptist Church, and in 1855, he founded First African Baptist Church in Paris, which is now First Baptist Church. "As far as I know, he commuted between the two churches," said Sam Scott, a deacon at First Baptist Church. "I think he was the pastor of both churches." In 1860, Green, with help from his church in Maysville, paid $850 for his wife and four children, who were still in slavery. But by then they had lost track of one son, who had been sold to an owner in Memphis and maybe later sent to Cuba. Green, like Rosa Parks, was no one to mess with. In a deposition to the courts, Gould said he didn't know Green before the train ride, but he had to defend the honor of a woman forced to stand while Green sat. "Having never been accustomed to see such an indignity as that put upon a lady, that she must stand through a ride of eight miles while a negro man lolls at his ease, I could not bring myself tamely to submit to it. "I do not believe that there is a gentleman in Kentucky who would stand idly by and see his wife and daughters thus insulted. ... If any man has fallen so low as to think white women should stand while negro men keep their seats then him I have insulted, and really I do not care if I have." In his book, Green said all that was hogwash. "I take the liberty to say that there is not an ounce of truth in the thing," Green wrote. Green filed assault and battery charges against Gould, an unheard-of move in those days. One witness wrote, "The Reverend President, G.T. Gould, of Millersburg, who struck the old black preacher, Elisha Green, has in the public estimation so proclaimed himself a bad citizen that any college or church that carries him will have to do it as Sinbad did the old man of the sea. "That institution cannot flourish until that man and the other two associated with him are dismissed from its employ." And even the Lexington paper, The Lexington Transcript, on June 19, 1883, said, "Rev. Elisha Green is sixty-five years of age and has been a minister of the gospel for thirty-nine years, all of that time pastor of the Maysville Colored Baptist Church, and since 1855 has also had charge of the church at Paris. He is a quiet and unobtrusive man and is esteemed and respected not only by his own race, but also by the white population of Maysville. He was injured several years ago in a railroad accident and has since been a cripple." The matter went to court in March 1884 in Paris. Green wrote that the cost of the suit was "$300 and the court allowed me $24 damages." He had won, at least in principle. Gould later was found guilty of immoral conduct and was forced out of his church and church conference. Green died at his home in Maysville in 1892. A copy of his memoir can be found on the Internet at greenew/greenew.html. While everything came together when Rosa Parks sat unmoving on Dec. 1, 1955, history lists others who did the same well before her. It's good to know one of those brave souls lived right here in the Bluegrass and lived to talk about it. Reach Merlene Davis at (859) 231-3218 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3218, or


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