Saturday, July 4, 2009

Just finished reading - A History of Blacks in Kentucky, Volume 1: From Slavery to Segregation, 1760-1891 by Marion B. Lucas

Although I have deep Kentucky roots through both of my parents, before moving here I had not taken the time to study the different facets of the state's history. Upon my relocation to the Bluegrass state I was happy to find a book that covered one of my favorite histoical topics, African American history - as it relates to the history of Kentucky.

The author, Professor Marion B. Lucas earned his Ph.D. from The University of South Carolina, which has one of the most respected Southern History programs in the nation, and was a long time instructor at Western Kentucky University.

A History of Blacks in Kentucky recounts many episodes that have been lost or forgotten about African American contributions to Kentucky's story. Blacks accompanied whites into what became Kentucky from the time of the earliest explorations. In 1751 a slave went with Christopher Gist on his exploration down the Ohio River. On this trip Gist and his crew found also found a black man living with a group of Indians on the Scioto River. Slave explorers came with Daniel Boone in 1760, and defended Fort Boonesborough against Indian raids in 1778. One interesting early story is that of Monk Estill. Monk was a slave at Estill's Station when the fort, occupied mainly by women and children at this time, was surrounded by Wyandots. During the siege the Indians captured Monk, but he falsely convinced them that the fort was too strongly held and the Indians retreated with the black man as a captive. When the Estill Station pioneer men returned, they caught up to the Indians. During the skirmish Monk shouted the Indian's numbers and battle plans to them and they recaptured Monk. For his bravery he was given his freedom. After his emancipation Monk started is own saltpeter mining business in Madison County.

Professor Lucas vividly recounts slavery days in Kentucky. First, with Kentucky being a former county of Virginia, and secondly, being settled largely by peoples from Virgina and North Carolina, slavery was written into the first state constitution. During slavery the black population continued to grow. The black population percentage reached a high in the 1830s when it was almost 25% of Kentucky's population. Kentucky had the distinction of being third in number of slaves among the states that allowed slavery; only behind number one Virginia and number two Georgia in 1860. But, Kentucky was characterized by its low number of slaves per owner. The average owner in 1850 had approximately 5 slaves each.

Unlike say Virgina, Louisiana, or South Carolina, antebellum Kentucky never had a large free black population. Free blacks never made up more than one percent of the state's population during these years before the Civil War. But, with Kentucky being an upper-South state that bordered on Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, opportunities abounded for slaves to runaway to the free states and then to Canada, particularly from the heavily slave populated counties of the Bluegrass and northern Kentucky regions.

The Civil War and Reconstruction were pivotal times in Kentucky's black history. Although Kentucky slaves were not freed by Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, limited opportunities arose when blacks started being recruited into the ranks of the Union army in the state in 1864. By the end of the war over 23,000 Kentucky African American men served in the Union army. The 13th Amendment finally outlawed slavery in Kentucky and hopes climbed for a new day for the freedmen, but those hopes were often crushed by the white controlled state government who were not ready for racial and social equality among the races.

Blacks instead turned to their own traditional community strengths of family and religion to make their way. A number of local educational facilities emerged during Reconstruction with the assistance of the Freedmen's Bureau and Northern philanthropic organizations. Black populations in Kentucky cities such as Lexington, Louisville, Bowling Green, and Newport boomed as freedmen left the fields in search of better opportunities. What they met was normally more of the same; limited jobs and racist ideals.

Dr. Lucas provides many stories of black achievement along with those of struggle, abuse, and disappointment for African American Kentuckians. He ends the book with a fitting concluding paragraph:

"With declining support from white liberals and diminishing national concern over their fate, black Kentucky leaders possessed few options in 1891. As in the past, leaders placed their hope for future equality in the false premise that full acceptance in Kentucky society only required that they build respect for their race by becoming responsible, hard-working citizens. Such good citizenship in a democracy should win favorable response form the white community, they reasoned. The future would provide the answer."

After reading Lucas's book, I am certainly looking forward to reading George C. Wright's, Volume 2: In Pursuit of Equality, 1890-1980, in the near future to learn more about this subject.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your passion for history. Monk Estill saved the life of my 4x gr-grandfather following Estill's Defeat in 1782. Research into those exploits have led to a full-fledged blog, here: