Upstairs in the offices of the Urban League of Lexington-Fayette County is a room packed with boxes, papers, photos, and other paraphernalia documenting decades of work by the organization. Urban League President and CEO P.G. Peeples calls it his “war room” and he says people have accused him of being a hoarder for keeping all these items for so long.
“I felt an obligation when I took over this organization to keep those materials because that’s in honor of... the people who worked back then to get this organization started,” says Peeples. “That was not an easy feat.”
Now a new book titled “The First 50 Years: 1968-2018” details the history of the Lexington chapter and its ongoing work to help Blacks and poor people in central Kentucky build better lives.
Peeples has witnessed and made much that history himself. A native of Lynch, Kentucky, he had been a school teacher when he was recruited in 1969 to work for the fledgling affiliate of the Urban League. Two years later, Peeples would be named CEO of the organization. He was the youngest leader of an Urban League chapter in the nation.
But launching the group was not easy, according to Peeples and Jacalyn Carfagno, a former Lexington Herald-Leader journalist who edited the new history. Organizers had to raise a $25,000 affiliation fee required to join the national Urban League. They were also had to get an editorial endorsement from the local newspapers.
In those days, The Lexington Leader and The Lexington Herald newspapers were led by Fred Wachs. Carfagno describes Wachs as a racist who squelched coverage of the city’s Black citizens and of the Civil Rights Movement. She says Wachs feared such stories would lead to race riots in Lexington.
It would take a one-on-one meeting with Shelby County native and National Urban League Executive Director Whitney Young, Jr. to change Wachs' mind.
“He was really a professional at dealing with people like Fred Wachs,” says Carfagno. “Somehow or other out of that [meeting], the Leader wrote an editorial endorsing the founding of an Urban League chapter here.”
“That was probably one of Whitney’s major accomplishments of his career to get Fred Wachs to do that,” says Peeples.
A Drive for Safe, Affordable Housing
From the start of his tenure, Peeples says the Lexington Urban League worked for fair housing and economic opportunity. He credits a local Jewish businessman, Stanley Rose, with helping to raise the seed capital and acquiring four houses on Chestnut Street that could be resold to Black families. From that initial $18,000 investment, Peeples says the League has gone on to make $28 million worth of housing available to aspiring homeowners over the past half century.
“When the Community Reinvestment Act came in [in 1977], bankers were looking for inner city projects to work with, so they started coming to us,” says Peeples. “That was a win-win for both sides.”
Peeples says Don Ball, the late Lexington homebuilder and philanthropist, also played a critical role in helping the city’s poor with housing.
“A Godsend,” Peeples says of Ball. “Anywhere you go in this community that you see urban core development, you will see the handprint of Don... Boy, do we miss him.”
By the 1980s, the League wanted to offer more than rudimentary dwellings to its clients. Carfagno says they sought to provide amenities that would create a safe and welcoming environment for working parents to raise young children.
“They were building homes, more than just a place to stay,” says Carfagno, “so that they can concentrate on the things they need for their families to succeed.”
“We said just because it would be for low-income and poor people, it should not look that way,” adds Peeples.
Now the Urban League is fighting a different housing battle: gentrification. Peeples says homeowners in minority neighborhoods in downtown Lexington face increasing pressure from escalating property taxes and opportunistic real estate developers.
“Our urban core has been targeted,” he says. “There are a lot of people coming into town with deep pockets and with money readily available to suck up the property.”
The League has partnered with the city on a Neighborhoods in Transition Task Force to identify ways to protect and empower vulnerable residents and communities at risk of gentrification.
Academic Achievement Gaps and Other Lingering Challenges
In the realm of education, the Lexington Urban League has given thousands of dollars in scholarships to students, provided group counseling and mentoring services for middle and high school youth, and created an adopt-a-school program.
But significant challenges persist, including achievement gaps among poor and minority students. Peeples says Manny Caulk, the former superintendent of the Fayette County Public Schools, made a good start on addressing the problem before his unexpected death in December.
“He left a challenge for us,” says Peeples. “The challenge is we’ve got to work hard to keep focus on that achievement gap.”
Complicating the issue, says Peeples, is the fact that the school board charged with hiring a new superintendent is all white. He says that it is up to Black leaders in the community to help guide the board through the school district’s Equity Council Committee so they can make a good hire that will benefit all students.
“Some of us who thought we were finished [and] could go sit down, we’ve got to come back off the bench,” says Peeples. “We will be right there whispering in their ear every step of the way... We will not let this wagon roll back down the hill. That’s our promise.”
The Urban League also plans to help implement recommendations made by Mayor Linda Gorton’s Commission for Racial Justice and Equality, a group created last year in the wake of protests over police brutality and racial inequities.
“Now we’ve got to breathe life into that thing and make it work,” says Peeples. “That’s not going to be an easy feat. All of us have got to circle the wagons and work hard.”
All this work will unfold in a nation that is deeply divided politically, racially, and economically. After watching a mob storm the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, Peeples says he now finds it hard to be optimistic about the future of the nation.
“I’m still worried about how much behind-the-scenes collusion went on,” he says. “If that’s as deep as some of us think, we’ve got problems. We’ve got some real serious problems.”
Carfagno, an Arkansas native whose earliest memories are of the battle to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, says working on the organization’s history made her appreciate the commitment of Peeples and his colleagues over the last 52 years. She says that work is as important now as ever, especially given the attack on Washington.
“I think maybe that more than anything woke people up and said we’ve got problems here,” says Carfagno. “Mainstream society, particularly white society, likes to think we’ve solved that, now let’s move on. But in reality, there are so many legacy problems that continue.”