In the late part of the 1800s, among the African Americans in the mountains of Appalachia was a group that called London, Ky. home. In 1898, some of them came together to build a house of worship. It was named First Colored Baptist Church, but in the late ‘60s, the name was changed to Mill Street Baptist Church. Wayne Riley grew up in that church, and when it fell into disrepair, he, along with others in the community, stepped in to save it.
“The younger people had left because there were no jobs, the older people were dying off, and the church was just sitting there empty,” said Riley, a lifelong res¬ident. “The city was going to condemn it and tear it down. Our goal was to save the building.”
Several others also wanted to save the building and they agreed that a museum would be the best way to pre¬serve the history of the African American population in Laurel County.
“We already knew that at one time there had been a larger population of African American people here – when the coal mines were booming. We thought it would be easy to gather the history, but it wasn’t,” he said with a laugh. “It sounds easy to just find some history, but once you find it, you have to learn how to store it, how to catalog it, how to present it to people.”
In 2004, some family members joined with him, along with guidance from the Kentucky Heritage Council, to start the Laurel County African American Heritage Center.
“Over 100 years ago, there was a group of people who started this church and paid for this land,” Riley said. “It doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to the community. We need to remember our history, what it takes to get from a one-room school to what we have now. We want our young people to know our history that happened here. We need to teach them every step in the struggle. Everybody needs to talk to young people about history.”
Riley’s most prized possessions in the museum are a doll and teddy bear that are both over a century old. They have been passed down through his family and have been donated to the Heritage Center. The collection also includes several handmade quilts, and the uniform of Paul Carson, the first black police officer in London, Ky. Another unique part of the collection are gradua¬tion name cards from the 1951 class at Lincoln Institute which was an all-black boarding high school created by the trustees of Berea College after the Day Law out¬lawed racially integrated education at the college.
With the help of his friend, Ray Storm, who served as warehouse manager and later as assistant director of Christian Appalachian Project’s (CAP) Operation Sharing, Riley was able to acquire fireproof file cabinets to store family genealogical records, as well as items to furnish the facility. CAP also provided floor tiles and light fixtures for the center’s renovation.
The Heritage Center also initiated several outreach pro¬grams to support the community. Operation Sharing supplied the nonprofit community partner with food for its pantry as well as clothing items and durable goods to help people in need in Appalachia. “We wouldn’t have been able to supply those needs without CAP,” Riley said.
A carpenter by trade, Riley graduated from Laurel County High School and Laurel County Vocational School. In the last few years, Riley helped to relocate a house built in 1896 that became the addition to the Heritage Center. He also moved and renovated a building, donated by the city, which now houses a commercial kitchen where residents can preserve and market foods they produce.
The last donation that Storm coordinated for Riley was a stainless-steel freezer. It was the perfect addition to their outreach program that partners with Grow Appalachia, whose mission is “to teach families in central Appalachia how to grow food for themselves and their families, cook the produce in heart-healthy ways, preserve excess for the winter, and sell at the farmers market.”
Black Soil, based in Lexington, Ky., is a combination of farm tours, farm-to-table dinners, and workshops with the mission to reconnect black Kentuckians to their legacy and heritage in agriculture. The two or¬ganizations recently co-hosted an event at the center’s commercial kitchen.
“The alignment between both of our agencies highlights marginalized people within the food sector throughout the state,” said Ashley Smith, co-founder of Black Soil. “Though it was our first farm tour and farm-to-table dinner in the region, it will not be our last. The spirit of Appalachia, especially the work of people of color is rising strong and resilient like never before. And food is central to this catalytic energy.”
Riley continues his work with the museum, but is expanding outreach activities that teach children and adults how to grow organic food. This includes preparing soil, planting seeds, maintaining gardens, harvesting crops, and preserving food. Riley dreams of offering other types of classes through the center as well as helping other small nonprofits get off the ground.