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Nick Clooney's next act: Restoring historic African-American church in Augusta

The former African-Methodist-Episcopal church is located at Second and Frankfort Streets, two blocks south of the Ohio River, in Augusta.
John Kiesewetter
The former African Methodist Episcopal church is located at Second and Frankfort Streets, two blocks south of the Ohio River, in Augusta.

The former WKRC-TV anchorman and AMC movie host is leading the effort to save the African Methodist Episcopal Church, used by a congregation started by former slave Sarah Thomas in the 1830s.

He was a news anchor, variety TV show star, AMC movie host, college professor, newspaper columnist, actor, activist and author.

Now Nick Clooneyhas a new avocation: Restoring the historic African Methodist Episcopal Church founded by a former slave Sara Thomas a few blocks from his home in Augusta, Ky.

"Every person has a dream. This was a dream to animate it, and show what it was like for African Americans, enslaved or free, at the time the church was organized," says Clooney, 88, a Maysville native who has lived in the Kentucky river town since 1974.

The church was founded in the 1830s by Sarah Thomas. Born in the late 1700s, she was enslaved by an American family which moved from Virginia to Bracken County, Kentucky. After she got her freedom, she stayed in the region, Clooney says.

"She started her own church, which was illegal, of course, and a school. She had to convince city leaders to do it," he says. "There were various iterations of the church. It started outside, then they used a lean-to next to the barn before they raised enough money for a church. She must have been magnetic."

American Life TV
Nick and son George Clooney, who reported on the Darfur civil war in in 2006 for American Life TV, own the old Augusta church along with Nick's wife Nina, George's wife Amal, and the Clooney Foundation.

When Sara died, all the possessions listed in her will were sold to purchase freedom for her enslaved husband Harry.

"She had married a slave gentleman, and at the end of her life she freed him. She bought him. Her last act of her life was buying his freedom," Clooney says.

In the late 1970s, when Clooney was commuting daily to WKRC-TV in Mount Auburn to anchor WKRC-TV's news, the pastor of the church asked the Clooneys to buy the church building dedicated in 1894. It's at Second and Frankford streets, two blocks south of the Ohio River, just north of Augusta Independent High School and west of plaque honoring Gen. George C. Marshall, former U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Secretary of State and architect of the 1947 post-World War II recovery "Marshall Plan."

"The pastor came to us because the church was moving out, and he feared it would be torn down. They couldn't afford to rehab it," Clooney says. The congregation talked for years about raising funds to repair the old building, but never did.

"We own the whole block. (Son) George and Amal and Nina and I. It's part of the Clooney Foundation," Clooney said. The Clooneys have replaced the roof and saved the stained-glass window on the church a block from their guest house on Riverside Drive, and three blocks east of the Rosemary Clooney House museum for Nick's older sister, who died 20 years ago.

John Kiesewetter
Rosemary Clooney's former home on Riverside Drive in Augusta houses a museum dedicated to the singer who died in 2002.

Clooney is being helped by "a lot of friends from Eyewitness 12: Ira Joe Fisher, Dennis Janson, Deborah Dixon, pals who have an interest in good stories. They're storytellers and the want to tell this story," he says. Also helping is Augusta resident Chris DeSimio, a Wells Fargo senior vice president and former president of the Friends of Harriet Beecher Stowe House. (DeSimio is a member of the Cincinnati Public Radio Board of Directors)

They're applying for grants in hopes of starting work next year, Clooney says.

Clooney — a former radio/TV anchor and Cincinnati Post columnist who considers himself a "reporter" — says he'd like discover how the African American congregation dealt with the Civil War. Although Kentucky was a pro-slavery state, it did not break away from the United State and join the Confederacy.

On Sept. 27, 1862, Confederate Col. Basil Duke’s 2nd Kentucky Cavalry attacked Augusta hoping "to disperse Unionist militia there before crossing the Ohio River and moving on Cincinnati," according to aKentucky historical marker in Augusta.
Duke's horsemen, expecting a quick surrender, instead encountered "a stiff defense" which resulted in "hand-to-hand fighting . . . as the rebels forced their way into homes and businesses. Although the Confederates eventually forced the militia to surrender, the number of Southern casualties made Duke abandon his plans of taking the war onto Northern soil. Therefore, the citizens’ stand at Augusta kept the Confederate invasion confined to Kentucky in 1862," the historical marker reads.

"This little church is an example of an African American church in the slave era in a slave state," Clooney says. "It was there when the battle of Augusta was fought (in 1862). I'd like to find something about what the members did. Did they stay? Apparently they did."

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.