In Black and White: A Photographic Collection of African- American Life in the Bluegrass

Beginning during the slavery years and ending with the Civil Rights movement, this exhibition seeks to document a reality that sometimes escapes description in the written word. Viewers will see the faces of fellow citizens who struggled in demeaning jobs, educated their community, provide spiritual comfort to one another, delighted in friends and family, and achieved many personal and professional rewards despite the constraints of segregation. Many of these images may make views uncomfortable, but like those reflecting progress and change they reflect the difficulties and prejudice sometimes found in our midst.

Working under a grant from the Kentucky Humanities Council, the museum in conjunction with the African- American Studies and Research Program at the University of Kentucky have begun building a collection of photographs documenting African- American life in the Bluegrass area. Guided by Dr. Gerald Smith, a member of the museum's Board of Trustees and director of the AASRP, grant workers and museum volunteers were instrumental in locating and preserving these treasures. To find these images, the museum held several "photo fairs' inviting local citizens to bring in family albums, church records, school pictures and family portraits. Volunteers scanned the photographs so they could be digitally stored, and recorded background information from the donors. The collection will become part of the Kentucky Digital Library. This exhibit represents a small portion of the over four hundred images currently in the collection. Dr. Smith's book from the Black American Series: Lexington Kentucky was expanded from the grant work. 


The first known black servant to come into Kentucky did so with Christopher Gist in 1751. Gist’s slave was not the first black man in the west. At this time there were several escaped slaves that lived among the Shawnee. The entrance of Gist and his slave, marks the beginning of a long history of slavery in Kentucky. In Pioneer times, master and slave worked side by side to carve out a life in this new territory.  African Americans fought on both sides in the settler’s conflict with the Native Americans. For example, Pompey, who served as interpreter for Blackfish, and fought on the Shawnee side in the attack on Boonesboro.  Pompey was killed in this conflict.  Monk is remembered for tricking the Native Troops, after they took him captive, into forgoing their plans to attack Estill’s Station.  Monk’s brave actions when face to face with the enemy, earned him his freedom. By 1798, Kentucky established an elaborate slave code, that solidified slavery in the region. 1790 Census states that there were 11,830 slaves and 114 Freedmen in Kentucky. By 1790, Lexington and the surrounding Bluegrass regions, was the largest slave owning area in Kentucky. By 1860, 47.3% of Lexington’s population was black and most of those individuals were slaves.

Most slaves in Kentucky worked on small farms. They served as domestic servants, field hands, industrial workers, mine workers and to build the Railroads.  A visitor to a Lexington hemp factory in 1830, was impressed by the use of slave labor in manufacturing.  He stated that “ The constantly increasing utilization of slave labor in manufacturing left no doubt as to its growing profitability”. 10 years of age seems to be the average age slave children were put to work, but some slaves told of starting small chores as early as four.

Slave status was passed down through the mother, regardless of the status of the father. Slave marriages were not recognized by law.  In order to “marry” slaves had to have the permission of their masters. The marriage ceremony itself could be a simple as obtaining permission and moving in together to full out church ceremonies with elaborate parties to celebrate. Due to the tenuous nature of slave marriages.  African American preacher, Rev. London Ferrill, often pronounced couples married until “death or distance” parted them. Slaves families were often headed by women. Though many Kentucky slaves knew both of their parents, and it was not unheard of to know all of their grandparents.

The type of housing offered to slaves varied with the prosperity of the owner. Most slave cabins were log structures (though stone and brick houses were not uncommon), that were properly chinked, with brink or stone fireplaces. Most cabins had at least one window and most had dirt floors.  The cabins usually styled with one room on ground floor with a loft above. The cabins only had crude furnishings. Urban slaves, either lived in cabins behind their master’s house or in servant’s rooms with in the house.

Owners supplied their servants, with the exception of favored or important house slaves, with cloths that met only basic needs and were not from the best cloth.  Shoes were allotted usually just for the winter months.

Slaves were offered a very basic diet. One large farms, food was handed out once a week with each person receiving four pounds of pork, a peck of meal, and molasses.  Slaves were expected to grow their own garden to supplement their food allotment.  Food was used as presents in the form of wheat bread, coffee, sugar and syrup.  

To leave the farm that they worked on for more than four hours, a slave needed a pass written by their, the owners family or the overseer. Passes were very descriptive and dated, in order to ensure that they could not just be handed off. The punishment for being out without a pass was ten lashes on the bare back. In 1800, Kentucky prohibited large gatherings of blacks on Saturday, Sunday and nights. Curfew was set at 10 pm. Due to the number of issues that they had regarding curfew with slaves that worked the market place, all slaves used in this capacity were to carry a pass at all times. In 1853, the Lexington and Frankfort Railroad ordered that merely having a ticket would not enable a black person to ride the train. The railway required that a slave produce a pass in duplicate, and the pass had to some from a person know to the conductor.  If the owner was not known by the railway official the bondsman must get “some respectable white known to the officers” to corroborate his identity.

Recreation was available to the slaves. On the farm recreation was found in games like marbles and horseshoes.  Storytelling and music were also popular entertainment. Most Kentucky slaves were allowed free time from Saturday afternoon, until Monday morning. Many slaves were also allowed the week between Christmas and New Years off. On these days recreation took the form of visits to town, fishing, quilting bees, parties, dances, sing alongs, foot races, jumping contests, wrestling, and boxing.

In the Bluegrass many master contracted with local doctors on a yearly basis to provide care for their family and their slaves. That being said the master and his wife were often the first to treat a ill slave with the remedies that they had on hand. . Medical care at this time was hazardous at best, but most owners felt it was in their best interest to see their slaves properly care for.  Master’s were required by law to care for the old and the disabled. In cases of mental retardation or with the mentally ill the state required that the master, at his expense, place them in institutionalized care.

The most common form of punishment was whipping. Bucking, which is tying the slaves hands together in the front, forcing them to draw them over the knees, and then forcing a stick under the knees but over the arms, was often used by masters to discipline slave.  Those caught running away, branding or ear cropping was used. Instances of severe abuse or murder of slaves by their owners was investigated but the guilty parties were rarely punished.

Many slaves attended the church of their masters but many were able to attend Black churches or be server by black preachers on their farms. Black Churches formed the nucleus around which the entire back community, slave and free, organized their own social, educational and cultural activities. Kentucky did not prohibit by law the education of slaves, though there was some white opposition to the idea of literate slaves.  Slave became literate in several ways, one being taught on the farm by their masters, or by literate members of their own family, some slave children were educated in private school, in their neighborhood( most run by churches).  Not all slaves were able to enrich themselves by learning to read. 

{C}{C}{C}{C}The age, sex, health, disposition, skill, supply, and demand for slaves, determined their value. Slaves were most valuable for sale between the ages of 18 and 35, with men being more valuable than women. There was also a smaller market for children, the elderly and for “fancy girls”. “ Fancy Girls” were attractive, young, gentile, usually mulatto women purchased to be mistresses or prostitutes.  Lexington had the largest market for “fancy girls” outside of New Orleans. Kentucky passed a law in 1833, which was repealed in 1849, which prohibited the bringing of slaves into Kentucky for the purpose of sale. “Jails” were used to house slaves awaiting purchase. These jails varied in the severity of the surroundings, but most offered unconformable or harsh surroundings. Slaves traders were required to have a license and written consent of the majority of citizens living within 400Ft of the salve jail. Many owners tired to sale their slaves locally or privately to traders, if theirs was not doable, then slaves were put up for auction. In Kentucky 77,000 slaves were sold to the Deep South between 1830 and 1850s.

{C}{C}{C}{C}Many slaves found ways to resist slavery. Some tried to gain freedom by buying themselves out of slavery. They obtained the money to do so by selling wares they created, selling their services to other members of the community. Men usually bought themselves first and then purchased the rest of their family.  The “slowdown” was a common non-violent means to resist slavery. This was achieved by slowing ones pace, pretending to be sick, or breaking machinery. Many slaves attempted the perilous task of running away. It was uncommon for slaves in Kentucky to use the underground railroad. Kentucky slaves did not seek help until after they had escaped into free territory.



Reconstruction to the Civil Right area

First Days of Freedom

Kentucky Slaves had not been freed by the Emancipation Proclamation. Determining their status near and at the end of the Civil War, created issues for freedman and authorities alike. Black Refugees flocked to refugee camps and into the cities to seek protection from Federal authorities. Federal officials proclaimed the slaves to be free, slave owners threatened any that was willing to employee “their” slaves, and officials arrested the “freedmen” as vagrants.

Major General John M. Palmer, Federal Commander of Kentucky, used his power under martial law to ease this tension. Palmer issued Order No. 32, on May 11, 1865, allowing the black population of Louisville Kentucky, including slaves, the right to move freely in Kentucky, and allowed them to cross over into Ohio.  On July 20, he issues Order No. 32, allowing refugees to leave their appointed refugee camps throughout the state. These “Palmer Passes” greatly increased the movement of the “freedmen” throughout the state. During this period of movement multiple families sometimes lived in spaces unsuitable for a single family.  They often occupied abandoned buildings, barns and stables. As one person put it “ better a thousand fold liberty with poverty than plenty with slavery.”

Those that took up freedom’s promise often sot out the families that they had been separated from.  Many of these family members, were often still held in slavery. “When Catherine Riley of Logan County demanded her child still held in slavery, her former owner beat her with a club and left her beside the road “covered with blood”. The story of Rev. Elisha Green, illustrates the issues that Kentucky blacks faced. Green had three daughter, who were owned by three different family. One daughter, Amanda, used the “Palmer Pass” to be reunited with her father. Green was arrested for “ harboring slaves”, was found guilty, and fined thirty dollars.  His daughter Maria owner, when Green refused to return her to him, finally agreed to let her go if she left the state.  Green found a place in Ohio for her. Green’s arranged for his third daughter, Caroline, to rescued from her owner by a squad of troops.

Kentucky lay out of the bounds of the Freedman’s Bureau jurisdiction. However by June of 1865 Major General Oliver O Howard, the head of the Freedman’s Bureau, directed that the Freedman’s Bureau out of Tennessee begin extending its influence, if not authority in Kentucky. With the adoption of the 13th amendment, the bureau formally began overseeing Kentucky’s former slaves.  They promoted “industry, peace, good order, and education” for the black population of Kentucky. The bureau maintained educational activities until summer of 1870, and maintained a veterans’ claim office until June 1872.  The Freedman’s bureau was not very effective in Kentucky due to the lack of funds, lack of federal troops in Kentucky, and the hostilities of white Kentuckians. 



School Segregation

The passage of several state laws profoundly shaped the education of African American students in Lexington schools. In the 1890s laws commonly referred to as “Jim Crow” legally sanctioned segregation across the south. Named after an 1828 minstrel act and a common racial slur, these laws mandated the separation of whites and blacks in all public Facilities. This legislation permitted decades of discrimination in all schools, restaurants, train carriages hotels and cemeteries. Many Jim Crow laws remained in effect until the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

The state of Kentucky enacted the Day Law in July 1904 to specifically address segregation in schools. The law targeted the coeducation of black and white students at Berea College, and effectively segregated both public and private schools throughout the state. An enlighten institution such as Berea College, dedicated to educating African- Americans and the Appalachian poor, was prohibited from fulfilling their mission. The Day Law remained in effect until amended in 1948 to allow black physicians and nurses to take postgraduate instruction in public hospitals in Louisville. The bill was further amended in 1950 to allow black students to pursue classes unavailable at Kentucky State College. Berea College was the first institution to admit black students; the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville quickly followed.  In June 1954 the United States Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown v. Board of Education invalidated the Day Law, and mandated school integration “with all deliberate speed.”

Civil Rights