In honor of February being Black History Month (and for purely personal reasons), Capital Living will do its best to uncover African American History throughout Frankfort and Franklin County over the next several weeks.
Special Thanks goes to Russ Hatter at the Capital City Museum
Born one hundred and fifty years ago this Valentine’s Day in Franklin County (February 14, 1867), Julia H. Sayre would become a dedicated “angel of mercy” during a difficult time in history for African Americans.
There was a time in history when African Americans couldn’t even walk into a hospital for treatment. As much as we complain about the waits in a hospital’s emergency room today, imagine not having a hospital that would not welcome you at all for treatment. Unless you were so bad off, only then would they take you in the rear entrance to treat you, then send you right back out again to recover at home. Julia Sayre entered into this environment as an African American. At the age of 29 years old, she became a practical nurse – almost by accident. At that time, the Kings Daughters hospital was located on East Main Street. Her son, Junius Sayre, worked at the hospital. When she went in to see him just to ask for him to get some groceries for her, they asked for her assistance before she could leave the hospital. And she never left. Sayre would go on to serve at both Kings Daughters Hospital locations (East Main & at Steele and West Third Streets) for 52 years.
Julia downplayed her service to the community. She didn’t think that she was anyone special. But someone thought her special enough to want to tell her story in the Frankfort State Journal back in the 1940’s. Then, she was interviewed by J. S. Towles. At that time, she was 81 years old and still working. She also had no plans to retire because she enjoyed her work so much. Towles recounts her working on the 3rd floor of the hospital when it was located on Steele & Third Streets. She didn’t want to take the time to talk as she had duties to attend to. Julia was described as the type that never had to be told what to do. She just knew it had to be done and did it! Very progressive for an African American, let alone a female, of her time.
Julia had a passion for her work that is hard to find today. She meant so much to so many because she gave so much and asked so little in return. When a water pitcher would be empty, she would be the first to reach to fill it. If a patient needed or wanted a bed pan or needed to be moved to ease their pain and suffering, at 81 years young, she was there to at the ready to help. Even during her twilight years, she walked the halls of the hospital four hours a day to help others.
Towles recorded Julia’s words in that 1940’s article in the State Journal. Below are the words of a woman who did not see color. She saw a human being suffering.
“I was reared by Sim Major (S. I. M. Major was the editor of the Kentucky Yeoman newspaper, mayor of Frankfort for many years, and resided at 519 Ann Street, which is currently the Meeting House Bed & Breakfast) who owned the old Yeoman place. Nicest people in the world. No, I was never a slave. That was taken care of several years before I was born (referring to the American Civil War, of course).
“Now, there was an interesting case that stands out in my mind. There were two Hutchison sisters brought to the hospital who had been badly frozen in their home near Millville. A brother was left behind and he died. I think the two sisters finally left the hospital but they were horribly frozen.
“Yes, sir, I grew up with this hospital, but I don’t want any publicity. I just love to help and I don’t want to leave. I’m still active, too.”
No truer words were ever said by someone with such passion. Eventually, age took it’s toll on Miss Sayre, and the roles became reversed in December of 1956. Julia found herself as the patient, sitting in a hospital bed, being tended to by another nurse. On Christmas Day, 1956, a photo of Julia and her nurse, Mrs. Melvinia Gillis, was taken. Sayre was 90 years old. She passed away exactly one month and a day later, on January 26, 1957. She was buried up at Green Hill Cemetery.
Julia Sayre was truly a Frankfort treasure. An “angel of mercy” of African American decent. She was a woman of faith, as she was a member of the First Baptist Church for 70 years at the time of her passing. She was a mother. She was a pioneer breaking barriers. She was a human being like very few of her time.