Lexington subdivision opened American dream to black families in the 1950s

The Lexington Herald-LeaderFebruary 26, 2013 

It looks like many Lexington subdivisions built in the 1950s and '60s — rows of modest brick and stone houses with well-tended yards.

But St. Martin's Village took the American dream to a whole new level in Lexington: It was the first large subdivision where black people could buy a home.

"They were the crème de la crème for African-Americans in the 1950s," said Porter G. Peeples, longtime president of the Urban League. "You were somebody if you got a place in St. Martin's."

It had always been hard for black people to find good housing in segregated Lexington. Few banks would lend in traditionally black parts of town. White neighborhoods were off-limits, by strict social custom, if not legal covenant.

For example, a 1907 marketing booklet for the new Mentelle Park development off Richmond Road promised: "No Negroes can ever own property or live in the park. No adjacent or near-by Negro settlements."

When rumors circulated in 1925 that black-owned land off North Limestone would be developed into a subdivision for blacks, more than 200 white citizens gathered in a nearby church and organized a successful effort to block it.

But after World War II, Lexington's business leaders realized their little college and farming town needed to attract industry if it was to have a strong economy and viable middle class. Factories hired a diverse work force. Things had to change.

Ovan Haskins, an insurance executive who helped start the Lexington Hustlers semi-pro baseball team, realized a long-held dream in 1948 when he bought land off Newtown Pike and began building 26 homes for sale to blacks on what is now Haskins Street.

But the big break came in 1955, when Joe Fister teamed with Chuck Seeberger and Joe Tuttle to build a 200-lot subdivision for blacks on 40 acres of farmland Fister owned on Price Road off Georgetown Road.

St. Martin's Village was named for St. Martin de Porres (1579-1639), a mixed-race monk in Peru who is the patron saint for those seeking interracial harmony. The main street was called De Porres Avenue.

"This will be as good as any subdivision in Lexington," Seeberger said in a 1955 Lexington Herald article that carried the headline, "First Negro Subdivision Planned on Fister Tract."

Seeberger, president of the development company, was a Kansas native who had lived in Los Angeles before moving to Lexington, where his father-in-law owned an insurance business. He wanted to become a developer, building homes for people who had never been able to afford one, and he recognized an unmet need.

"People from the white community said, 'You don't need to be doing this — the status quo is just fine'," said his son, Kirk Seeberger. "It upset him, but he expected it."

Seeberger recalled his father, who died in 2003, describing how some St. Martin's Village homeowners would weep at their closings.

"They said they never thought they would ever own a nice house in Lexington, Kentucky," he said.

Many of those black homeowners were professional people — and, eventually, city leaders. The late Harry Sykes, who became city manager and mayor pro-tem, lived in St. Martin's Village, as does former Councilman Robert Jefferson.

Two brothers, Alvin and Bennie Bond, did much of the concrete work on houses in the subdivision. That included "sweat equity" to help them buy their own homes across the street from each other on De Porres Avenue.

"I was born and raised in this house," said Darryl Bond, 48, one of Alvin's children. He and his wife, Linda, raised three children there and now operate a licensed child care center in the house. Like his father, Darryl Bond also does concrete work.

Bond's lifelong tenure in St. Martin's Village isn't unusual: he guesses that 80 percent of the homes are occupied by original owners or their descendants.

"It's a nice neighborhood," Bond said. "Everybody knows everybody. Everybody pretty much looks out for everybody else. If kids are misbehaving, somebody will correct them."

Michelle Davis, 55, who also lives in the De Porres Avenue house where she grew up, agreed.

"It's a family-oriented neighborhood; almost like a big extended family," she said. "We all grew up together. We were always in each other's houses.

"We even got to know each other's relatives from out of town when they would visit. It's home."

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