Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Tension of Slavery and Emancipation

While doing some research through Kentucky newspapers I ran across the above notice on page three of the February 25, 1864, edition of Henderson, Kentucky's, The Weekly Reporter.

Understanding the historical context of the state helps one better understand this brief and tragic article. As I have mentioned in past posts, Kentucky was the last of the major slaveholding states to formally end the institution. Exempt from the Emancipation Proclamation due to its continued loyalty to the Union, it took the ratification of 13th Amendment in December 1865 to finally bring emancipation to the commonwealth.

As one might imagine, the road to freedom had many bumps and potholes. Slaves in Kentucky fully understood what was happening during the Civil War. They knew about the Emancipation Proclamation, which went into effect fully a year before this newspaper notice ran. They understood that a victory for the Union would be a defeat for slavery. White Kentuckians hoped that by remaining loyal slavery would continue in the state. Enslaved people thought otherwise. They used the disruption of the war to runaway. Some went to nearby Union army camps, others to free states across the Ohio River. Still, more slowed their pace of work and others felt emboldened, knowing the institution was on it last legs.

We do not know the full situation in this particular incident. We do not know why the unnamed slave became "refractory and attempted the life of Mr. Mills, the overseeer." But, without a doubt it shows the tension that existed between the oppressed and the oppressor. Other information would be needed to complete and corroborate this account - information that may or may not be available. But, knowing what was going on at this time allows one to make a speculative inference.

This is purely speculation on my part, but this slave probably knew that he was laboring under a dying institution. He may have become lax in his responsibilities and was thus threatened by Mr. Mills the overseer. Being fed up with his situation the enslaved man may have returned the threat. The overseer, being in his particular authoritative position, likely felt he had little choice but to back up his threats with exercised force. From the overseer's perspective, he could little allow his authority to be questioned. If he did, he would not get the needed labor from his charges, essentially his main responsibly. In addition, being a white man, honor would not allow him to be threatened by a slave without some severe recourse. Again, this conjecture is purely speculative, but would not have been unheard of in this time and place. Regardless of the true facts of the incident, the tension between slavery and emancipation was played out in many similar occurrences across Kentucky and the South.      

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