“We exist temporarily through what we take, but we live forever through what we give.” —Vernon Jordan, civil rights activist
This year, the members of First Baptist Church on York Street will celebrate 174 years of ministry in the Nicholasville community.
Organized in 1846, the ‘Colored Baptist Church,’ now First Baptist, was the first official African American Baptist congregation, overseen by the stewardship of Reverend Robert Irvine. Before the construction of its current location, completed in 1911, it and other fledgling church groups met in the Union Church building downtown while they established their congregations.
Current First Baptist minister Reverend Moses Radford began his nearly 30 years of ministry in Nicholasville in 1991, on the 145th anniversary of the church’s founding. Under his watch, First Baptist continues to build upon its legacy of service to both its flock and the community through “equipping the saints,” as Reverend Radford proclaims.
First Baptist observed the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday this year with a packed house and celebrated their place in the history, legacy, and contributions of the African Americans in Jessamine County. Those who were able marched in the January cold to the Jessamine County Courthouse with voices raised, singing, “We Shall Overcome.”
The congregation takes great pride in the role it plays in the community. It is not only one of the first and largest congregations in the county, but it has also weathered nearly two centuries of changing times together. Many among its ranks have participated in the fight for Civil Rights in Kentucky, from the former pastor the late William Augustus Jones, Sr. to the late Jesse E. Mason.
Mr. Mason was a pillar of the African American community in his native Nicholasville and is listed in the Notable Kentuckians African American Database for his work here. Mason—a Kentucky State University graduate and WWII veteran—was the first black man in Kentucky who was issued a license to sell used cars. That same year in 1965, he led the push for integrated schools in Jessamine County. He went on to establish a new middle school named in honor of the African American high school that had closed after integration of the County schools.
Mason was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, and it was through the organization he met Ms. Ruby McCoy. After a divorce, she was single again and working the same accounting job in Fort Knox that she’d been doing for years. She was ready to do something else with her life.
It’s no wonder these two stars came into the same orbit.
A FAMILY LEGACY OF SERVICE
Ruby McCoy Mason was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, just south of the capital city of Jackson. She happens to be her grandmother Ruby’s namesake, saying proudly, “Everybody says I take after her.”
“Even with my grandmother, she was always involved like that,” Mason says. Grandmother Ruby Smith was well-known in Hattiesburg as a nurse at the Forrest General Hospital. She taught Sunday school at church and worked with the local Head Start program, and was also a midwife. ”At one time, she delivered most of the children in Hattiesburg,” Mason remembers fondly. “She always said we are here to serve other people.”
That message became a lasting memory and a call to action that Mason identifies with genuinely, saying. “It’s a need to get out and help. It’s like a drive to get out and help other people.”
When Mason was just nine years old, her parents decided to relocate from Hattiesburg to Joliet, Illinois. The move from the small-town segregated South to a suburb of Chicago was, in her own words, “a shock to my system.” She attended an integrated school for the first time but found they did not treat her as an equal to her white classmates. Mason wanted to try out for the cheerleading team as she had done in Mississippi. Though they allowed her black male classmates to play on the sports teams, she “didn’t stand a chance of getting on as a cheerleader.”
Traveling back to the segregated South to visit family also came with snags, but nothing the family couldn’t overcome. “I remember when we were traveling, there were certain bathrooms we couldn’t use and restaurants we couldn’t go into, so my Mom and Dad would always pack us a lunch—and we’d stop at a rest area or on the side of the road to eat and use the bathroom.” She remembers a time when going to the movies also meant they were only allowed to sit in the balcony.
Those situations were challenging, but she never let them dampen her spirit. That drive and resilience—instilled by her family—made a powerful impression early on in her life, and she continues to carry that torch. Her background was a perfect fit for her new life, awaiting her, and she welcomed the opportunity for a new adventure.
A COMMUNITY SERVANT
After the Masons married, they made their home in Nicholasville.
Mr. Mason encouraged his wife to get into real estate, and after she got her license, immersed herself into the bustling community. “For some reason, people always ask me, ‘What’s going on?’ I thought, well, we all can get out there and find out what needs to be done in the community.” You could say she dove right in. Of the nearly twenty civic clubs, organizations, associations, and nonprofits to which she belongs as a board member, a president, or a volunteer team member—Mason genuinely loves to serve.
It is her daily mission to reach out to people on a personal level to engage, encourage, and motivate them to get involved. Participation is vital for Mason, and she invests her time into causes that have a productive, positive impact on others, from supporting access to clean water to providing food on the table or a roof over a family’s head. “You got to think about walking in somebody else’s shoes—one day, you get to that point, and you pray somebody will treat you the way you treated them.”
After just a few minutes of conversation, her quiet demeanor and friendly persuasiveness strike a balance with the conviction and drive she channels into her volunteer work.
At First Baptist Church alone, you may have seen Mason singing in the choir, serving as church clerk, or teaching Sunday school class. In all likelihood, you may have passed her driving a church bus full of ladies to a special black history event as part of her Widow’s Ministry. The Widow’s Ministry has a special place in her heart, especially after the loss of her husband in 2002.
She was one of the many who marched to the courthouse and sang freedom songs during the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebrations. It, no doubt, was a poignant walk of jubilee for a Mississippi native who has seen much change, endured hardship, and never let anything stop her from making an impact close to home. Mason pours her energy into being someone on whom others can count.
And, her work has not gone unnoticed. As an active Nicholasville resident for 26 years now, Mason was one of only six people to receive Centre College’s 2020 MLK Leadership Award in January. It is an honor chosen by the members of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. State Commission, the Kentucky Heritage Council, State Historic Preservation Office, and the Kentucky Historical Society. Her service to the community isn’t something she wants accolades for but hopes her contribution will make its mark.
Mrs. Mason leans in and sagely says, “You don’t want to leave and nobody even knows you existed.”
AN OPEN DOOR
The historic First Baptist Church has regular Sunday services, bible study groups, and activities for youth, adults, and seniors. Their doors are open to everyone who wants to take part. Join in being a part of a historic community of parishioners working for positive change and connection in Nicholasville.
If you feel inspired to get involved in the community, you know Ruby Mason can point you in the right direction; or if you have a need, reach out. There are people here who are willing to help. In a day and age where people feel more disconnected than ever, Mason agrees, “I think if everybody could get involved in one different area, it would make us so much better.”
First Baptist Church
200 South York Street
Nicholasville, KY 40356
First Baptist Facebook Page