National Historic District nomination drafted for Old Wilderness Road

Published 10:16 am Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The technical draft of the Old Wilderness Road National Historic District nomination was discussed at the regular meeting of the Danville Architectural Heritage Board last week.

Joni House, preservation coordinator for the city, said the 43-page document will eventually be turned over to the Kentucky Heritage Council to decide if there is enough merit to submit the nomination to the National Parks Service for the 3.27-acre area to be named a National Historic District.

The document was researched and written by architectural historian Trent Spurlock, who works with Cultural Resource Analysts Inc. in Lexington.

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“The McGrorty Avenue/Old Wilderness Road Historic District is one of the best and oldest preserved African American neighborhoods remaining near downtown Danville,” Spurlock wrote. “The historic district reveals the post-Civil War realization of property ownership and increasing economic independence for African Americans.”

For the nomination application, House explained to the board that Spurlock included a detailed history of Danville and Boyle County to put the district’s significance in perspective.

In addition to detailed descriptions and photographs of each of the “contributing” 13 dwellings that make up the historic area, Spurlock wrote that Wilderness Road or McGrorty Avenue “was developed on the outskirts of downtown Danville beginning in the 1870s and continued its development through to 1950. … Early deed transactions for the neighborhood reveal lots were purchased by African Americans from a prosperous, local white businessman or from an African American couple who also resided in the neighborhood.

“… the neighborhood, although small, reflects the realization of African Americans’ pursuit of home ownership and creation of community on the periphery of Danville beginning in the years following the end of the Civil War through the mid-twentieth century.”

Some of Spurlock’s research about the Wilderness Road/McGrorty Avenue history includes:

• “McGrorty Avenue was named for Captain Alexander Scott McGrorty, a resident along the street for approximately 80 years. The street was previously known as Lexington Pike on the 1876 map and variously referred to as Old Wilderness Road. In 1901, the portion perpendicular to Main Street was known as McGrorty Street, while Lexington Pike extended northeast from Broadway. … Captain McGrorty lived in a large home on the north side of Main Street at its intersection with McGrorty Avenue. in 1915, Captain McGrorty, a native of Ireland, was the oldest member of Danville’s Trinity Episcopal Church and a longtime druggist in the community. … In mid-October 1936, the Danville City Council changed the name from McGrorty Avenue to Wilderness Road at the request of several citizens.”

• The 1897 Danville city directory showed eight homes on McGrorty Avenue between East Broadway and Lexington Avenue were occupied by African Americans.

• The 1900 Federal census listed McGrorty Avenue as the First Ward of Danville.

• Through deed research, Spurlock discovered that on August 28, 1878, one of the lots with a two-story house was sold to African American Jennie Jones for $175.

•  Based on the U.S. Bureau of the Census in 1900, Spurlock wrote, “In 1900, Monroe Baughman was 82 years old and working as a road rock breaker, while his 75-year-old wife, Fannie, was employed washing an ironing. Most of the African American male residents’ occupations along McGrorty Avenue were unskilled, labor intensive jobs including: laborer for the railroad; working odd jobs; grocery wagon driver; carriage driver; farm laborer; day laborer; horse trainer, house servant; house plasterer and house carpenter. Women were also employed in labor intensive positions, often as domestic servants, such as: washing and ironing; cooks for private families or in hotels; housekeeping; seamstress; and laborer in a factory. At least one African American female living along the street was employed as a teacher.”

• Dr. Christopher B. Dotye was one of the more prominent African Americans who lived on Wilderness Road. According to the 1942 city directory, Spurlock found that Dotye and his wife moved into the house between the 1940 census and the 1942 city directory. Dr. Dotye, who was 34 at the time, may have gone into practice with another African American doctor in Danville. “In 1951, Dr. Dotye was the only African American doctor practicing in Danville.”