Saturday, June 30, 2012

Who's Heard of Queen Katherine's Day?

While reading through a colleague's recently completed dissertation, I ran across mention of a slave celebration that I had never heard of before and appears to have been unique to Kentucky.

Slave celebrations were certainly not uncommon in the nineteenth century South. Those situated around harvest time - although they still required work - usually occurred regularly so that they came with an air of anticipation by the participants. Work celebrations such as corn shuckings (or huskings) allowed slaves from neighboring plantations and farms the occasion to visit with one another and work together in a common purpose in an often less strict environment.

Those celebrations that occurred around the Christmas-New Year holiday season were most often attended to with great care. Various foods were prepared and served and often the master let down his guard as concerned alcohol consumption by his workforce. Dances also normally accompanied these festivities, where enslaved musicians played traditional instruments such as the fiddle, banjo, guitar and bones. However, this particular Kentucky slave celebration, called Queen Katherine's Day, apparently allowed an unusual opportunity for slave self expression, and to a degree, role reversal.

To the slaves who worked in the hemp industry - at least in some of Clark County, Kentucky's factories - Queen Katherine was a type of invented patron saint who allegedly ruled when the art of rope making was invented. It seems that slaves took elements of their own African culture and blended it with Euro-American traditions of charivari to create this unique holiday.

When I first read about this it reminded me of the shivaris or charivairs that the common people in early modern Europe were allowed by nobles to perform to display their displeasure of a rule or law in which they had no say or way to dispute. It was in essence a release valve for normally inexpressive frustration. It too reminded me of the junkanoo and carnival celebrations of the Caribbean. This opportunity and ability to unwind withe masters' consent appears to have been the goal for Kentucky slaves too. 

On November 25, Queen Katherine's Day, the slaves were allowed to parade through the streets making noise. They could draw attention to themselves by making speeches and didn't have to yield the street or sidewalk right of way to whites (within reason). They could honor their valuable but degraded labor in hemp manufacturing - which was usually referred derogatorily as "slave" or "nigger work," - with an air of respectability for this one day of the year.

The time of year for the Queen Katherine's Day celebration was carefully selected in order to coincide with a slow down in the hemp growing and harvesting cycle. Around this time each year the hemp underwent a rotting phase required to eventually obtain the desired fibers from the stalks. Kentucky hemp working slaves often did not get the Christmas-New Year holiday season off that other slaves received because that was an intensive time of labor when the hemp stalks had to be "broken" and "hackled." 

Whites for a time understood the value of Queen Katherine's Day. By allowing their slaves one yearly day to blow off steam and celebrate, they ultimately remained in more control of the bonded population. But, in the wake of Nat Turner's Rebellion in Virginia in 1831 and increased antislavery agitation in the Bluegrass State, a fear arose that squashed Queen Katherine's Day. Kentucky outlawed the importation of slaves in 1833 in order to curb the possibility of bringing in rebellious slaves. On the heels of that decision, just two years later, the town of Winchester in Clark County, ended the Queen Katherine's Day celebration; most likely in fear of its potential to spark an insurrection. The town ordnance read: "Whereas, the negro slaves engaged at the rope walk in the vicinity of this Town, are in the habit of celebrating the 25th day of November in each year as the anaversary [sic] of rope making as invented during the reighn [sic] of Queen Katherine, by parading and marching through the streets of Winchester. Therefore let it be ordained by the Trustees of the Town of Winchester, that the Town watch this day appointed, be and they are hereby ordered to prevent such parade hereafter in the limits of this Town." So ended Queen Katherine's Day.

I would be interested if anyone has more information on this celebration and if it was held in other hemp growing counties or parts of Kentucky or was strictly confined to Clark County. 

Image "The Hemp Brake" by S.I.M. Major courtesy of the Kentucky Historical Society    

No comments:

Post a Comment