Friday, March 19, 2010

A Kentucky Free Man of Color That Mentioned John Brown

Every once in a while when researching you stumble across something you didn't intend to find, but makes all the other fruitless searching worth the work. Last evening I intended to do some more searching through nineteenth-century Kentucky newspapers for mentions of John Brown. While looking for the roll I wanted to see I saw the Kentucky governors papers on microfilm. After speaking with the reference librarian who had a broad listing of what those paper contained, I saw one section for Governor Magoffin said "Harper's Ferry Affair." BINGO!

About half way through the roll I found what I had only hoped to find; a Kentucky African American perspective on John Brown.

This letter was was written on January 12, 1860; a time when things in Kentucky were fever-hot over Brown's raid. Brown had been hanged on December 2, 1859, and John Fee and his Berea missionaries had been exiled from the state later in the month. Cassius Clay had addressed a crowd from the Kentucky state capitol steps on January 10, in which he condemned Brown's actions, but supported the right to speak freely in opposition to slavery. The letter was written from Lebanon, Kentucky in Marion County.

The author, Abraham Meaux, was a free man of colour (as he spelled it), and was a barber. He had been given his freedom at the death of his master. Since his emancipation he said that, "I have lived every since from the Sweat of my own brow." He stated that "My forefathers was emegrated from Africa to America against their will," and he obviously thought that he too would be moved against his will, as he explained, "its hard that I will have to be driven from home to some place I know not where." Meaux was referring to the tighter controls that were being put on free blacks in Kentucky in the aftermath of John Brown's raid.

Meaux was not totally correct when he said that, "My unfortunate rase [race] had nothing to do with John Brown And nor Harpers ferry." It was quite well known that four of the five African Americans that participated in the raid were free blacks. Meaux expressed strong feelings against Brown and the trouble that he was currently causing free men of color. "I see the evil that he [Brown] has done us poor coloured people in the state of Kentucky. I wished that they had hung him the first day that they imprisoned him higher than Haman was hung," Meaux wrote. He explained that he well knew that there were some free blacks "that is getting their living out of chicken coops and Smoke houses" [thievery]. "But it will look so hard to drive those who stand up and faces the open day light upon his honesty like a white man."

Meaux said that he had recently heard rumors in his barber shop from legislators heading to Frankfort that the governor intended "to make a law to drive" the "free coloured people out of the State." Throughout the letter Meaux is very deferential as one would expect. To close out the letter he became even more so. "I am in hopes that this letter will not be considered as an insult nor as an offence to you. I am a stranger to you but I presume that you was acquainted with my father Walter Meaux he was a man who lived his days honest." He explained that, "Although I have some reckles relatives I have been accused in one or two instances myself but I can raise my right hand at the hour of death not guilty. Alough [allow] me to say againe as your humble servant do not receive this letter as an insult for it is not intended as such. I know you will not condisend [consider, consent?] to answer this address." He closed, "I remain your Obedient Servant;" a common closing of the era.

A description was written on the outside of the letter in different handwriting that said, "Abraham Meaux-free boy." Meaux had described himself as "Boy" earlier in the letter when he wrote he "was raised in the little county of Boyle can bring a repprobation [approbation] from my county court showing that I have been an obedient Boy and have lived honest. Although it looks like my obedience will do me no good in this case it seems that I will have to suffer with the guilty" [he means Brown].

Meaux's spelling and punctuation left something to be desired, but it was certainly no worse and probably much better than many of the whites whose letters I have read. I am curious to learn more about this "free man of colour." How old was he? Did he, as did many blacks in Kentucky, participate in the Civil War? How did he experience Reconstruction? I will probably never find the answers to those questions, but I now have something I had only hoped to find when I began my research; an African American Kentuckian's perspective on John Brown's raid. I love research!

3 comments:

  1. In researching my screenplay NICODEMUS I too have been fascinated by the fact of free blacks during slave times.

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  2. Did you see on the PBS show "Finding Your Roots" that Maya Rudolph of Saturday Night Live is related to the Meaux family who were slaves in Mercer County, KY?

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  3. Yes, I did catch that one. I've enjoyed most of the "Finding Your Roots" episodes.

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