SPJ Dedicates White Hall as Historic Site in Journalism

photo of plaque unveiling

White Hall, the former Madison County home of abolitionist newspaper publisher Cassius Marcellus Clay, was dedicated today as a Historic Site in Journalism by the Society of Professional Journalists.

As she unveiled a plaque marking the distinction, SPJ National President Hagit Limor said, “The SPJ is proud to install this, and we hope many people learn not only of his viewpoint of slavery, but how he was able to use freedom of the press and his newspaper to help change the course of our history.”

The Eastern Kentucky University Department of Communication and the campus SPJ chapter nominated the site and were instrumental in securing the designation for White Hall, only the 99th site in the nation to be so named and the second in Kentucky. The audience for the late morning ceremony also included Al Cross, a former national SPJ president and now director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky; legendary Kentucky journalist and TV personality Al Smith, a SPJ Fellow; David Thompson, executive director of the Kentucky Press Association; two descendants of Clay; state officials; and advisers and students from the EKU SPJ chapter, among dozens of others.

Rev. Charles Herrick, a great-great-grandson of Cassius Clay and current chair of the Clay Family Society, called the occasion “an auspicious day in the life of White Hall, the Commonwealth of Kentucky and the Clay family. Cassius was a man of principle, willing to lay on the line his convictions.” Herrick was joined at the event by another Clay descendant, Sally Clay Lanham.

A slave owner’s son, Cassius Marcellus Clay founded an anti-slavery newspaper he called The True American. The first issue was published on June 3, 1845, in Lexington despite dominant pro-slavery sentiment in the Bluegrass region. The newspaper included articles and editorials in favor of legal emancipation and even some pro-slavery letters. After only 13 issues, a court injunction allowed a committee of Lexington citizens to shutter the newspaper. A mob seized Clay’s printing office, packed up press, type and equipment, and delivered them to the railroad depot.

But the action didn’t quiet Clay, who continued to publish his newspaper from Cincinnati, using a Lexington dateline, until 1847, and continued to be a vocal advocate for the abolition of slavery.

“So long as there is one thing in a nation which cannot be discussed, there is no freedom of speech or the press in that nation,” Clay once wrote.

EKU President Doug Whitlock said he was “extremely proud of the role our students and our faculty in the Department of Communication played in bringing this event to fruition. Cassius Marcellus Clay and the entire Clay family have been central figures in the history of Madison County. This is a great day for Kentucky, White Hall and Madison County.”

Limor, an award-winning investigative reporter for WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, called Clay a “hero” who used freedom of the press to “empower people, change laws and change lives. He inspires everyone to stand up for what they believe.”

Other speakers at the ceremony included Kentucky State Parks Commissioner Gerry van der Meer and Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet Secretary Marcheta Sparrow; Dr. Liz Hansen, interim chair of EKU’s Department of Communication and SPJ Region 5 Director; and Laura Butler and Lindsay Huffman, EKU students and SPJ members who are chairing the University’s First Amendment Celebration this week.

Hansen credited retired EKU colleague Dr. Libby Fraas for starting the efforts to secure the Historic Site in Journalism designation in the 1980s, noting that Deborah Givens, a current faculty member in the department and co-adviser with Hansen of the SPJ chapter, “revived the paperwork.”

White Hall State Historic Site, just off I-75 at Exit 95, is a restored Italianate mansion built in 1798 and remodeled in the 1860s. It is open to the public April 1-Oct 31, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. daily Wednesday through Sunday. For more information, visit parks.ky.gov/findparks/histparks/wh/.

Published on April 12, 2011