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Were you as amazed as we were to read the story of Thomas Samuel “T.S.” Baxter, the first African-American elected to Shelbyville City Council, where he served for almost two decades before being gerrymandered out of his seat because of his race?
We discovered Mr. Baxter as a small photograph in Portrait of the Past, Shelby County Kentucky 1865-1980. In fact, the caption beneath his photograph was the only clue we had to the story of T.S. Baxter.
Somehow, he had escaped not only much of the written history of Shelby County as published in various newspapers and books, but there also is a serious gap in the oral history, which tends to bridge and fill the crevasses that can emerge in the story of African-Americans in Shelby County and elsewhere.
The fame of men such as Squire Boone, Nicholas Meriwether, Bland Ballard and Benjamin Smith and other principals is well-documented and supported.
We know about Lee Nor Mack and Forrest Beckley, two African-Americans who served long and distinguished careers on that same city council. Their legacies are established.
But not even city fathers or historians or senior members of Shelby County’s black community knew much of anything about Mr. Baxter.
The sketchy newspaper accounts focused only on the sad story of the end of his tenure, but surely he served with presence and grace and the respect of his electorate, because they chose him for the council for 18 years, 1892-1910.
If nothing more, we can embrace him as an icon for the African-American community, for he must have stood stalwart in a most difficult time of growth in our country as it continued to rebuild after the Civil War.
There seems an opportunity here for a community research project to unleash an army of historians on the legend of T.S. Baxter. Researchers and genealogists could put their expertise to this task. Teachers could assign papers, and graduate students in history could write theses.
Who wants this challenge? Who will unearth the details and tell us what Mr. Baxter meant to Shelby County?
Let’s find out more about Mr. Baxter, and then let’s take steps to ensure his story never is forgotten. It seems, on this last day of Black History Month, that we owe this to the man.