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A long history of faith and survival

| Bob Hill

Almost 160 years after his birth William Muir's portrait hangs just inside the wooden front door of the Muir Chapel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church off Gilliland Road near Eastwood, Ky.

The church, white, picturesque and eased back into the woods like a Grant Wood painting, has a long history of faith and survival — although only three or four regular members now attend its bi-monthly services, and none in the winter when the church can't afford the heating bill.

There was also the matter of the church building being pulled uphill by mules for about a half-mile to bring it closer to the dwindling faithful.

Muir's portrait is worthy of that survival legacy; a solemn, searching proud-looking man in suit, buttoned vest, dark tie and white shirt staring back across a life he began as a slave.

Unable to read or write, he became a guiding force in his church near Eastwood, and then lobbied to see it become a needed school for African-American children.

He became a minister in the church, served three generations of a white family on a Shelbyville Road plantation — who then invited him to live in the basement of their Louisville home in the Cherokee Triangle — and became a land owner himself. He died in 1938 and was buried in a now-forgotten grave in the African-American cemetery off Flat Rock Road where many buried there share his fate.

Our story, then, is a broad, complex piece of Louisville history and faith told through the life of William Muir, his church and school, and his role in so many lives in the white and black community then and now. It will connect to pioneer Kentucky slavery, the nearby Rosenwald School for African-American children and that old plantation house on 15903 Shelbyville Road that survives today pretty much in time and place — its latest owners aware of its history and active in its restoration.

All that in area now much better known for the business boom along Shelbyville Road, sprawling, upscale subdivisions, Valhalla Golf Club and the preservation mindset of the almost 4,000 acres of Parklands of Floyds Fork – whose property and lakes are directly connected to the story.

William Muir shall be introduced by a man named Pryor Hancock, 92, a Louisville lawyer for more than 60 years whose family first lived in the old plantation house on Shelbyville Road in the 1860s.

"At one time they were supposed to have 1,000 acres," said Hancock. "They said they owned 'As far as you can see.' "

In the early years of Kentucky history 1,000 acres wasn't that much land. The state was then part of Virginia. In 1783 land grants up to 20,000 acres was offered to the wealthy and well connected on and near Floyds Fork. Their slaves – invisible and forgotten in such histories – came with them – including a slave owned by John Floyd.

Move forward to the 1820s and 1830s when a Virginia native, Robert Hord, a planter, livestock breeder and possibly a distiller, had purchased almost 2,000 acres of along Floyds Fork and what became Shelbyville Pike.

Tax lists indicated there were already about 180,000 slaves in Kentucky then – roughly one quarter of the population. Using their skill and labor, Hord oversaw the creation of "Hord House," a fine plantation home with thick walls of homemade brick, an elegant staircase, wavy-glass windows and a huge, dim, meandering basement large enough to store a winter's worth of food, or serve as living and working quarters for slaves.

After Hord's death in a carriage accident in 1848, George and Lily Mae Hall, bought the plantation property and reassembled some of the original parcels of land – earning some income by collecting tolls on the narrow, dirt Shelbyville Pike that ran alongside their house.

One of their slaves was a young man named William Muir, born in 1855 in Logan County, Ky., six years before the Civil War. The scarce records of the day later show him laboring in the Middletown area as a young man in the 1870s – with no clear record of the Muir that once owned and named him.

Pryor Hancock, the great-grandchild of George and Lilly Mae Hall, only knew Muir when he was an old man – the freed slave everyone called "Uncle Billy" who would serve three generations of the Hall family, staying with them after the Civil War, living nearby and working for the family almost to his death.

"He stayed until the bitter end," Hancock said.

The bond between Muir and the Halls was very strong, paternalistic, loving. Hancock's mother – Lilly Pryor Hall Hancock – lived in the plantation house where Muir worked for about 12 years. The Halls renamed the plantation"Auvergne"– originally a beautiful mountainous area in central France." After the plantation house was sold in 1922, her family moved to a big new house at 2409 Glenmary in Louisville's Cherokee Triangle.

Before leaving the plantation Lilly Pryor Hall Hancock carved her initials in one of the original pieces of wavy-glass – initials that remain there to this day.

Muir continued to work at the plantation until the Halls left. He married his wife, Annie, who was born in Spencer County, sometime around 1880. They would raise five children and live in a small Gilliland Road house on 18 acres of land sold to him by George and Lilly Hall in 1909 for $200 – 20 monthly notes of $10 each. That whole Gilliland area would become a settlement for former slaves and their succeeding generations; a few still living there today.

In the early 1930s, after Annie Muir had died and with the country devastated by the Great Depression, William Muir was invited to move into the basement of the Hancock home in the Cherokee Triangle. While there he would help with the yard work, do odd jobs and baby sit Pryor Hancock, then about eight years old.

"He looked to be 80 or 90," Hancock said. "The Depression was on and they'd had some hard times…So did a lot of people."

If there were 1930s neighborhood complaints of the Hancock family having a black man living in their basement, Pryor Hancock said he didn't hear them; he was just a kid; he and his house mate had become buddies.

"As a little boy I just loved Uncle Billy. He was a companion and I thought he knew everything…And he seemed to love me."

Like a poignant scene in a good movie, the young boy and the former slave would have long conversations sitting outside on the back porch. On their best days they would take a bus downtown to ride the Oak Street streetcar, with Muir doubling as a babysitter and tour guide. Hancock cannot fully remember if a black man traveling with a white child had to sit in the back of the bus.

"I think we'd sit near the middle," he said. "We'd ride to the end of the line together. It was just a time killer. He was awfully smart. He knew so much. He just had zero education. He couldn't read and he couldn't write."

But Muir knew the value of both. His wife was better educated; she had learned to read and write. Together they made sure their children went to schools then available; all would be listed on census records as literate. One daughter, Mary Ella, would teach at the 29th Street Colored School in Louisville. It later became the James Bond Elementary School and then torn down when Byck Elementary School was built. She taught until she was 70.

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In the 1870s religious services for African Americans in the Eastwood area were mostly held in private homes. In 1875 they built their first church – a log building known as "The Log Church" – on Eastwood-Fisherville Road. The land for it was sold to the parishioners by George Hall for $25. William Muir was named an ordained a minister in the church, then became its pastor; the church had an enduring name.

Typical of the era, the church also served as an African-American school during the week. Knowing the need for a broader curriculum, and aware that white students had a longer, regulated school year, Muir went before the Jefferson County School Board in 1912 asking it to buy the church building and lease the land for a full-time school for black children.

The board agreed to do it.

The old church building would serve as the local school until 1923 when the Rosenwald School program – a program founded by Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company to build schools for undereducated African-American children – established the Eastwood Colored School at 610 Gilliland Road.

The school would be built on a small section of William Muir's property then owned by his son, Carlos. Several of Muir's grandchildren would attend the school before in closed in 1937. Carlos was asked to build and maintain the outhouse.

The old school building is still there, stripped to its original shell and recently placed on the National Register of Historic Places thanks to the persistent efforts of Eastwood Village Council member Deb DeLor. Current owner and Eastwood resident William Johnstone – who bought the property at a court-ordered auction last May – said he is open to all suggestions on what to do with the property, including preservation.

Further back in the woods and up a long slope behind the Rosenwald School is the decaying home of William and Annie Muir, its doors missing, siding coming loose at the edges and rust eating at the corners of its tin roof. It's also owned by Johnstone.

There's a nearby lake on the site – and the ground in the area slopes away toward the lakes at the Parklands of Floyds Fork and eventually Floyds Fork itself.

"It breaks my heart," said Johnstone of the decaying house. "It's a beautiful site and a beautiful location."

When no longer doubling as a school, The Muir Chapel Church on Eastwood Fisherville Road moved along in time; improvements being made as money became available. Lights were installed in 1945. The Rev. Stephen White added a new foundation in the late 1940s and redecorating the inside.

In the early 1950s The Rev. Moses Sutton added a tile floor and painted the clear glass windows in broad strokes of yellow, creating a more translucent appearance that sent a warm glow across the old wooden pews and walls.

But the building was considered a little too remote from many of the parishioners. So about 1960 the Rev. White and his congregation hitched the church building to mules and hauled it on skids up the lane and across a field to its present site on Gilliland Road.

The building was duly commemorated: the plaque on the wall says "Muir Chapel C.M.E. Church Founded in 1875 by William E. Muir." The church fits so nicely there – tucked away at the edge of some woods – that its presence seems a welcome surprise no matter how often you see it.

After being moved, the church just drifted along in its new site, with familiar local names such as Dickerson, Walker, Miles, Muir, May, Mickens, Johnson White, Sweeny, Figgs, Bradley, Bradshaw and Thomas keeping it alive.

Various fund-raising efforts were held to revitalize it. The future looked good until a scandal developed involving the money raised. The church minister left and the affair severely cut Sunday attendance, dropping from a high of 30 to 40 to three or four people, depending on the weather.

A soft rain was falling on a recent Sunday morning service, turning the church a glistening white in the bright green trees. In special attendance that day was Rev. Roy K. Reid, presiding elder of the Louisville-Lexington District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.

He and Rev. Zachary Oldham, the head of Muir Chapel, were joined by a group of guests along with the few regular parishioners. They included Thornton Bowen, who's been attending the church for about 70 years, Sam and Kimberly Maiorana, who were married in the chapel a year ago, and Ronnie Holland, a neighbor of Oldham who's been attending services about a year.

Along with Oldham and his wife, Carolyn, those four are the only ones in church on many days. Services are held the second and fourth Sundays of every month except on the cold days when the cost of heating oil prohibits it.

Reid's opening prayer touched on both the delicate status of the church – and the attendance:

"Oh, Lord, we've not been that many people, it's just three or four of us…But you said when we gather, even three or four in your court, that we are in the house of the Lord.

"Pray, Heavenly Father, let this day be a successful day for Muir Chapel…Pray, oh Lord, that we'll be on the map."

Oldham has been head of Muir Chapel for about seven years. Now drawing disability, he had been an executive chef at a Holiday Inn. His wife, a special needs teacher for 32 years, is retired.

He recruits his parishioners where he can, including at the Kroger's where he works part time; a little proselytizing in aisle six.

"I go to nursing homes," Oldham said. "I go to sick people, people who are homebound. Whoever I see in the grocery store I'm always saying, 'Come to Muir Chapel.' "

He knows the history of Muir Chapel. He is familiar with the legacy of William Muir, the portrait hanging in the church vestibule. That's important because he is not paid for his work – he has never received a paycheck at Muir Chapel in seven years.

In fact, he and his wife pay $4,300 a year to the overall church budget. They pay $1,500 a year in insurance, plus most of the water, heat and electric bills. When it's all added up they pay almost $9,000 a year out of their modest pockets to keep their church open.

"God called me to preach His word," he said, "and I'm not in it for the money."

His Sunday gatherings are more like Sunday school and bible discussions; low-key gatherings at which the collections rarely hit $50. Oldham has found kindness in his neighbors; Claire Tanner, the postmistress at the Eastwood, will sometimes pay the electric bill and is trying to help fix the church plumbing.

Oldham thinks about other ways to raise money; the old church would be a good place to hold weddings. The small piece of land on which the church was built has become valuable – several people have inquired about buying it – but neither he and nor Reid want to put a price tag on the legacy of William Muir and his chapel: How many churches are named for a slave?

"As long as they can maintain the utilities and the upkeep of the church," said Reid, who also has a long personal relationship with Muir Chapel, "and the larger church, in its infinite wisdom, decides to continue it here, then it will continue here."

There is some history in that.

This article originally printed in the Courier-Journal on October 5, 2014. Click here for the full story as published on the Courier-journal.com, including photos and video. 

About the Author

Picture of Bob Hill

Bob Hill

Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.

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