Today I will offer an exploration of the concept of race, its history and contexts; and I will present a brief history of racism and anti-racist activists in Fayette County, Kentucky. In order to address racism in society, we must first understand what racism is and how it became a way to identify people that has negatively affected all aspects of their lives and well-being. So, first, reflect and write on the back of your handout: What is the definition of racism? Then share.
Racism is an system of ideas based on a belief that a particular group of people is superior or inferior to another, and that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics. This doctrine clarifies and defines group characteristics over individual qualities to justify non-equal treatment based on cultural, ethnic, caste or religious stereotypes. Racial separatism is the belief, usually based on racism or a reaction to racist actions, that different races should remain segregated and apart from one another.
The Historical Construction of Race
Race is a relatively recent concept within western societies. In Europe, until the latter part of the 1600s, identity was primarily defined by one’s caste, religion and language. The concept of race as a category of identity did not emerge until Europeans began to colonize other continents. In 1684, François Bernier published the first classification of humans into distinct races, followed by a 1735 publication by Carolus Linnaeus which further classified people based on continental differences: Europeans, Asians, Native Americans and Africans. Western science, funded by the colonial system, began in earnest to observe, measure and record hypothetical racial differences. The first law banning marriage between whites and non-whites was enacted in the colony of Virginia in 1691, and most all of the other colonies soon followed suit. Historians argue that the ban was issued to split up the laborers - white indentured servants from non-white bonded labor - after an uprising of servants during Bacon's Rebellion. Thomas Jefferson, for example, studied 18th century naturalists and saw no contradiction between his role as a slave-owner and his writings on colonialists’ rights for freedom from the British crown. Jefferson continued his own studies in the U.S. West as Lewis and Clark sent back notes about the people they encountered during their travels. By the 1800s the term "race" was commonly used as a way to group populations, including women, and place them in a hierarchy of civilization and native intelligence. The 3/5 compromise in our Constitution was based on how "free persons" (including indentured servants) were to be counted differently from Indians (who were excluded) and "all other persons" (i.e., slaves who as the Virginians James Madison and Thomas Jefferson insisted were persons, not property). This gave the South an advantage in Congress until 1861 when most of the slave-owning states seceded.
18th Century Culture Clash
Lexington was built in a beautiful area of central Kentucky called the Bluegrass: one of the most unique geographical areas in the United States. Before the city was built, visitors traveled through a hardwood forests and the meadows, when not being used for seasonal produce planted by various Indian tribes for thousands of years, were filled with the rustling canebrakes in which wild game and hunters could easily hide. The bluegrass for which this part of Kentucky is named did not arrive here until the 1700s. In the 1770s many private investors from the East commissioned surveys in this area hoping to be authorized to file land claims with the official surveyor, Col. William Preston of Virginia. The pioneers, both black and white, traveled into the Kentucky interior on trail systems that had been used by Indians for hundreds of years.
Governor Thomas Jefferson appointed John Todd as Lieutenant for the militia for this region. Todd had served also as one of the first Virginia burgesses representing Kentucky, and he had introduced bills to emancipate slaves as well as to set aside land grants for education. Todd recruited men after the winter of 1780-81 to build a fort that would protect the settlement against the British and Spanish artillery in the hands of Indian raiding parties and their allies.
Virginia Recognizes Town of Lexington
On May 5th, 1782, Virginia recognized the Town of Lexington as the seat of Fayette County. The county courthouse, a two-story log building on the northwest corner of Main Cross (Broadway) and Main Street, served as the center for both economic and political gatherings. Court Day was the one day of the month when the county court was held, and farmers – both black and white – came to the county seat to sell their produce and buy supplies. A census was taken of the town inhabitants in 1798 for a total of 1,475, nearly 25% identified as “Negroes” – but this might include anyone with dark skin, including Asian Indians or Amer-Indians. Compared to the county population of only 772, the city census numbers show the importance of this new urban center.
By the mid-‘80s Lexington was a thriving center of a hub of roads from the countryside to the rivers and from there on to the Mississippi. Stores, inns and taverns sprang up to meet the needs of an international population willing to gamble on the growth of a new town. Lexington was well on its way to becoming a new manufacturing center, and black labor was key to the success of the emerging town. Lexington slaves built houses, roads, bridges, and fences. They worked in the taverns, warehouses, stables, nail factories, tanneries, woolen mills, carding factories and brickyards. African-Americans, both free and enslaved, were mail carriers, furniture makers, cobblers, blacksmiths, tobacconists, weavers, barbers, gardeners, chefs, butchers, healers, jockeys, preachers, musicians, and even lawyers. Slaves were hired out for domestic service as well as agricultural work, and they sometimes had a say in where they worked. Leased slaves were important especially for manufacturers who then did not have to spend much in supervising, housing and feeding their workers. The hemp industry employed the greatest number of urban African-American workers – even young children. Slaves worked in the rope walks and bagging factories and learned important skills that could be utilized in other venues. Some African-Americans in Lexington speculated in housing and even purchased their own slaves in an effort to make their fortunes.
David Rice was educated at the College of New Jersey at Princeton before studying with Rev. John Todd, who spent a great deal of time working among slaves in Virginia. Rice was forced out of Virginia in 1783 because of his anti-slavery ideas and came to Kentucky – he is credited with organizing three of the first Presbyterian congregations in Kentucky and was involved in the organizing of the Transylvania Presbytery by 1786, the Synod of Kentucky, and the Transylvania Seminary (first starting as a grammar school in his home in 1787). This Princeton graduate was elected as chairman of the board to handle the endowment coming from the 12,000 acres that Virginia’s legislature had deeded to Kentucky. A strong opponent of slavery, he joined in the efforts of the Kentucky Abolition Society, writing under the pseudonym “Philanthropos.” In 1792 Rice published his pamphlet “Slavery Inconsistent with Justice and Good Policy” – failing soon thereafter as a delegate to the Kentucky constitutional convention, to insert an article leading to the emancipation of slaves included in the state's first constitution. He included in his arguments his fears of race mixing. He wanted Kentucky to stop the importation of slaves since blacks would eventually take control over what would become a lazy white man, “subvert the government and throw all into confusion.” Rice never freed his own slaves – nor did Kentucky as a state. It took federal troop occupation and a constitutional amendment to end slavery in Kentucky.
Even so, Kentucky blacks maintained as strong a commitment to their religious worship and education as the whites The first separate church for Blacks in Kentucky was organized in the early 1780s by Peter Duerett, a slave who migrated to Kentucky with the Rev. Joseph Craig, brother of Rev. Lewis Craig who brought “The Traveling Church” of Separate Baptists from Spotsylvania through the Cumberland Gap in the winter of 1781. By the fall of 1782 Craig established the South Elkhorn Baptist Church, and Duerett (“Old Captain”) and his wife created a Baptist church for Black converts at the “Head of Boone’s Creek” (off Todd’s Road near Clark County). They subsequently hired out the time of himself and wife from his owner and moved to Lexington, bought a cabin from John Maxwell and started what was then called the First African Church. The congregation, led by free blacks and slaves, bought its first property in 1815 (a cotton factory on High Street, next to the present Asbury Methodist Church) under the names of freedmen Rolla Blue, Wm. Gist, Solomon Walker and James Pullock. The next year they started a church school in a stone building behind the church on High Street. By the time of Duerett’s death in 1823 at the age of 90, the church had an estimated membership of 300.
Churches of all denominations supported the American Colonization Society which raised funds to send free African-Americans to western Africa where a new Republic of Liberia was established just south of the British colony of Sierra Leone, also established by anti-slavery activists. ACS leaders advocated missionary work in local black communities, offering Sunday School lessons and enough training to be sent to the new Republic as teachers and missionaries. They were also worried that the growth in numbers of free blacks would endanger their vision of a new nation of independent thinkers and morally strong citizens (now being codified as white males in nearly every state constitution). Kentucky played a large role in establishing this process of removal: Robert Wickliffe and Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge were state presidents and Henry Clay served as the president at the national level.
PAUSE & REFLECT:
How can a Kentuckian be anti-slavery but not anti-racist?
Institutionalizing White Supremacy (Black Codes and using public resources for whites-only)
In 1792 Kentucky was the first state in the new country to be organized west of the Allegheny Mounties and the first state in the new nation to expressly protect the institution of slavery. When Kentucky became a state in 1792, the legislature banned interracial marriage with the assumption that the New Republic's experiment in democracy would be destroyed by amalgamation of the races. This anti-miscegenation law was not repealed as were many other states' similar laws in the 20th century but was finally overturned by the Supreme Court in 1967 by Loving v. Virginia. In 1798 Kentucky passed its first slave code that required slaves who were away from residences for longer than four hours to have a pass. Any African-American without proof of freedom, such as a certificate of emancipation or testimony of white friends, could be sold into slavery.
Free African-Americans possessed little more freedom than slaves, but it is likely that they kept their place in the community through the use of personal contacts with landed and professional class whites. Every month, in almost every monthly session of the Fayette County Court, a slave received his or her freedom. It was easier to emancipate a slave in Kentucky than in the deep South, and the Kentucky Court of Appeals tended to rule in favor of freedom during contested cases in these early days of Kentucky slavery. Few laws targeted free blacks specifically since color, rather than bondage, determined the type of regulation. For example, blacks could not own weapons, testify in court against whites (though there were some exceptions), or even be suspected of trying to fight against whites.
Lexington’s black communities thrived. Enough so that the Lexington Trustees passed a resolution on July 8, 1800, hiring a city streets patroller to watch for large numbers of blacks in Lexington, especially on Sundays, since the large gatherings had “become troublesome to the citizens.” Lexington was Kentucky’s first city. Its literate citizens both rural and urban were convinced that Lexington was a new Philadelphia, a cultural mecca of civilization at the heart of the new republic’s farmlands and mineral resources. Her population had jumped to over 4,300 in 1810; the sales of some merchants surpassed one million dollars per year and annual incomes reached $60,000. Certainly, early Lexington’s society was not a democracy. The only citizens who could exercise the right to vote for or serve as town trustees were those who owned valuable land within one mile of the courthouse. In 1804 this meant that out of Lexington’s 298 heads of household, only 133 could vote. It was not until 1811 that the General Assembly overrode the town’s suffrage law and granted suffrage to all free white male town lot owners of at least eighteen years of age.
In 1808 the state assembly had forbidden the migration of free blacks into Kentucky, yet Lexington and the surrounding villages of the Bluegrass served as home for a relatively large number of freemen. Unlike Louisville, where the small free black population lived in segregated enclaves, Lexington’s black population lived in homes scattered among white residences. In 1810 white Lexingtonians created havoc after hearing rumors of a slave uprising. Several slaves were tortured and jailed but no revolution transpired. Nevertheless, Lexington trustee George Trotter, Jr. ordered William Worsley, captain of the night watch, “not to disturb the white citizenry -- but to apprehend and secure all verry [sic] suspicious blacks who may be found on the streets in doubtful situations -- and keep them in custody -- until they can be delivered to the civil authority.”
Private academies flourished in Lexington and their students often attended the open lectures at the University. African-Americans had few opportunities for academic education even though, unlike most other slave states, Kentucky did not forbid teaching slaves to read and write. Private schools with both black and white teachers taught neighborhood black children during weekdays or nights. The free blacks of Lexington in the early 1800s established their own school by subscription for their children and hired as the school’s teacher a white man from Tennessee. Sunday afternoon schools led by whites taught basic literacy and some vocational skills to free blacks or those who were willing to leave and help colonize Liberia.
Kentucky is the first to build a lunatic asylum in the West (an act of institutional benevolence of the time, the second in the nation), and it was open to both blacks and whites when it opened. The Orphanage and Female Benevolent Society in Lexington builds a new role for white women and the state begins to invest in public education with moral implications for building a better informed citizenry but taxes supported white schools only in the antebellum era. By 1838 Kentucky was the first in the new nation to offer school suffrage for female heads of household in rural areas – interestingly this included black women. (More on this later.) This is to say that the moral reform movement helped ensure that funding and government support for institutions such as public schools or orphanages went for the white population and not blacks.
KY Slavery = Task System
Alongside the growth in transportation after the War of 1812 came the importance of large agricultural fairs that facilitated livestock breeding and trading. Lexington was becoming an important stop for the Western plantation owners looking for stock to take with them down the Ohio and across the Missouri Rivers. This included a high demand for enslaved human beings: an estimated 2,500 slaves were exported per year from Kentucky during the 1830s-1850s. In 1833 the Kentucky legislature prohibiting the open buying/selling of slaves with the Non-Importation Act. This shifted Kentucky’s elite slaveowning families into a shadow market while the East coast began to blossom under a new market economy demanding freedom from tariffs and federal intervention. Kentucky farms were rarely more than 600 acres and relied on a diversified crop yield. By the 1840s, for example, Kentucky was second in the nation’s corn production at the same time that Kentucky farmers and manufacturers produced one-half of the national yields of hemp. Unlike the Deep South, only 20% of Kentucky’s slaves worked on large farms with twenty or more slaves. The average slaveholder in Kentucky held no more than five slaves, and the hiring of slave labor even by non-slaveowners was commonplace. Hundreds of hired slaves worked in brick factories as well as hemp and ropemaking factories using the task system to get the work done. This allowed some slaves to work unsupervised as long as they completed their assigned task within the allotted time – and after the task was completed, they could spend their time working for themselves or earning wages. Most Lexingtonians did not own slaves, but those few who did knew that the presence of slaves served as evidence of wealth, class and prestige.
Lexington’s landlocked location (in the center of the ten largest slaveholding counties of Kentucky) with armed patrols and slave jails all around made it an ideal spot for slave traders. A successful trader could clear $100-150 profit per individual successfully carried from Kentucky to Southern markets like Natchez or New Orleans. Lewis C. Robards was probably the most successful of the Lexington-based traders. He did most of his work from a long building of slave pens or “coops” on Broadway. Other dealers opened slave jails in downtown Lexington: we know of one on East Main Street and another on the corner of Short and Mulberry (now Limestone) streets.
The lucrative nature of the slave trade in Lexington resulted in fierce competition among dealers. Some Kentucky farmers unabashedly began “breeding” slaves for the purpose of selling their children. They did not hesitate to take advantage of the helplessness of their victims: the more ostentatious display of African-American nudity, the more numbers of potential buyers would gather around. The slaves would be put on display outside near the auction blocks beside the county courthouse. Sometimes an enterprising slave dealer would use a more discrete environment for public viewings and physical handling of the slaves. Robards leased then eventually bought the old Lexington Theatre on West Short Street and converted it into a slave jail. In an adjoining building, he imprisoned selected female slaves in luxuriously decorated apartments where prospective buyers could interact with the women more privately.
Anti-slavery, Pro-slavery supported by religious dogma and science
For many in Lexington, those who were against slavery violated the general order of society. Henry Clay was accused of being an abolitionist for his conservative approach for removal of blacks with the American Colonization Society served as the foundation to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and then again the Compromise of 1850. This stance also served to inform the young Republican of the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln, a Kentuckian by birth and Lexingtonian by marriage. However, for many Kentuckians this was not too unlike the more radical talk by Harry of the West’s distant cousin, Cassius M. Clay. Cash Clay insisted that white labor opportunities suffered due to the presence of slavery and advocated gradual emancipation – though never black equality, of course. The Presbyterians continued to hold a more moderate approach by urging state leaders to regulate the slave trade and exhorting the God-fearing elite who could afford to emancipate their slaves by way of the Kentucky Colonization Society to do so. The Rev. Robert Jefferson Breckinridge wrote long columns advocating this stance in the Lexington Reporter in 1830, even though it cost him re-election to the Kentucky legislature.
Race relations soured as the anti-slavery movement gained prominence in Kentucky. With the increasing reliance on slave labor in both rural and urban areas, the landless white male either raged against the vulnerable slave he hired or the free black he saw on the streets of Lexington. Opponents of abolitionism feared that freed slaves would take jobs away from white breadwinners, and many white Kentuckians like Cassius Clay who grew up in these times came to think of African-Americans as competing with white laborers for limited resources. Most Kentuckians, and certainly most Lexingtonians, were pro-slavery. Thomas R. Marshall, a professor of law at Transylvania University, believed that slavery was actually good for Blacks. He was trained in the science of the day, eugenics, which taught that Africans were of a flawed creation, and that the genesis in the Bible was describing the creation of white people. He thought of African-Americans as the children of heathens and barbarians -- they were naturally immoral and child-like in intelligence. He helped to put down abolitionists by saying public safety was more important that civil rights like the freedom of the press. As did many pro-slavery Lexingtonians, he wanted stricter governmental control of newspapers and voting.
Free blacks and successful, highly skilled enslaved blacks helped to counter such stereotypes. Except for restrictions on food and liquor retailing, neither the city nor the state government passed laws denying African-Americans the right to pursue particular vocations. The 1838 city directory shows black men were joiners, masons, porters, hack drivers, whitewashers, painters, road work, shoemakers, and coopers. Seven of the eight barbers listed were black owned businesses. Two of Lexington’s livery stables and several groceries were owned by blacks. Rolly Blue owned a blacksmith’s shop on Water Street. Free black women, whose population was fully half of the total free black heads of household in the 1820 census, took in laundry, sewing, or served as nurses. Unlike in many other Southern cities, free blacks mingled regularly with slaves and maintained a common sense of community. And all the African-American population of Lexington knew how easily they could fall prey to a mob. But it was Kentucky lawmakers who bowed to the slave-trading lobby and empowered the institutionalization of rase-based slavery. The Ky. Constitutional Convention conceived of a new statement for the 1850 constitution making ownership of slaves “an absolute property right ... the right of property is before and higher that any constitutional sanction, and the right of the owner of a slave to such slave and its increase is the same and as inviolable as the right of any property whatsoever.” Free blacks, mulattos, or any freed persons were to leave Kentucky or go to jail. Many slaves thereafter who were freed were not given their freedom papers so that they could stay in Kentucky; also many freed bondspeople bought kin and so could remain since they themselves were slaveholders.
The Fugitive Slave Law signed by President Millard Fillmore on September 18, 1850, meant that free blacks were at an even greater risk of being kidnapped and sold South. For African-Americans in Lexington and the surrounding areas it was an advantage often to stay where all in the community knew them. The age-old vocation of bounty hunter gained new importance as a patroller could solicit the help of federal marshals to capture an African-American who was identified by the patroller as a runaway slave. In 1850 when Kentucky had nearly 211,000 slaves, only 96 fugitives were reported; in 1860, with more than 225,000 slaves the reported fugitives numbered 119. Alongside white abolition societies, a multitude of African-American self-help groups geared up to oppose the effects of the new federal support for slaveowners. A new interest developed in Kentucky-bred bloodhounds used for hunting down people on the run.
Even before the Civil War, the "one-drop rule" became more of a social kind of racial classification -- asserting that any person with even one ancestor of sub-Saharan-African ancestry ("one drop" of African blood) was considered to be black. This concept associated with the principle of "invisible blackness" was an example of hypodescent, the automatic assignment of children of a mixed union between different socioeconomic or ethnic groups to the group with the lower status. In central Kentucky, a white son was born to a light-skinned African-American woman Milly who was enslaved - a public debate between Robert Wickliffe, the largest slaveowner in Kentucky, and Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, a Presbyterian minister, included accusations about who was the father. Milly took her son, Alfred Russell, with her when she was sent to Liberia as a missionary and teacher; he grew up to become the 10th President of Liberia.
The great divide over slavery was complex and Lexingtonians took many different stances. The status quo could not be maintained, and in the words of a great Kentuckian, Abraham Lincoln, the nation could no longer exist half-free and half-slave. In 1860 Lexington’s population was counted at 9,521, one half of the county population. Her slave population both hoped for and feared the coming war: everywhere panicky white citizens were seeing insubordination and insurrection in the slightest reaction from an African-American. The States Rights candidate and current Vice-President was a Lexingtonian, John C. Breckinridge. We venerate him today with a statue on Main Street. He was a popular moderate who campaigned on a pro-Union, pro-slavery ticket.
As a crucial slave trade stop on the way west, Lexington relied on governmental support for slavery and internal improvements and could not afford to go to war. In May 1861, the Kentucky legislature adopted a policy of “armed neutrality” – holding herself independent of both sides and protecting her borders against both sides. Recruits for both armies began quietly leaving Lexington in groups of two and three. Lincoln promised leading Kentuckians that he currently had no intention of sending troops into the state, but on September 19th her citizens observed the arrival of the first Federal troops from Camp Dick Robinson in Garrard County -- pitched their tents at the Lexington fairgrounds, a commons area that belonged to the Kentucky Agricultural and Mechanical Association, near the southern edge of town (now the University of Kentucky, about where the administration building now stands). More Union troops camped on the courthouse square with artillery on the green at Cheapside, and others at Botherum, the home of Madison C. Johnson, a friend of Abraham Lincoln. Union troops also encamped at “Pralltown” and anywhere else that had large trees and good fences that could be used for stove wood and campfires. Seventy-two African-American volunteers were quartered in the Clay engine house. Mule traders corralled large herds on Deweese Street, between Main and Constitution streets and they used a paddock on Bruce Street for grazing. General Quincy A. Gilmore built Fort Clay on a hill overlooking the city near the Versailles Road and another earthwork (which was never used) near the home stretch of the Kentucky Association racetrack in the eastern part of the city. Lexington was under strict military rule.
Lexington Slavery Protected by Military during Civil War
Nevertheless, slave sales continued on Cheapside and on the surrounding farms. Periodically occupied by Confederate Army and the Union, the residents of Lexington and Fayette County – both free and slave – were subject to raids and to being turned in to authorities as part of petty neighbor squabbles. No one was allowed to leave the city without a pass from the Provost-Marshall and merchants who refused to give the oath of allegiance to the Union (or didn’t say it often enough for the military authorities) were shut down. In January 1863, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, and even though it did not legally affect any slave’s status in Kentucky, the state’s population was in flux. Lexington was filled with refugees from eastern Tennessee and many runaway slaves. Most regiments refused to keep the slaves, since it was against the law, but some, for example, the 22nd Wisconsin Volunteers would take them in. Local military forces could impress black labor whenever they were bold enough to do so. Many church groups and self-help associations started up by local black leaders offered help and supplies to black impressed soldiers coming through the city as well as the refugees and their families.
C.S.A. General Morgan’s high-profile guerilla raid in 1864 caused a series of military decisions in Lexington: two of which wreaked havoc on Lexington and raised the level of anger and violence in the city. The Federal government began enlisting all able-bodied blacks and offered bounties and protection for all who volunteered. Many Blacks in Lexington took their freedom into their own hands and left for Camp Nelson only a few miles away. Thousands of African-Americans volunteers crowded into Lexington from surrounding counties, and one large group of recruits from Mercer County marched through the streets of Lexington shouting hurrahs for the Union and President Lincoln. The Enlistment Act of 1863 provided that any slave who enlisted received his freedom and that of his wife and children. But when the newly enlisted blacks returned home to claim freedom for their wives and children, the slave owners often refused to recognize the federal law. Even the staunch Unionist and abolitionist Reverend Robert J. Breckinridge claimed the federal government had no right to confiscate the “property” of loyal citizens under the 5th Amendment. Breckinridge became the leader of a small group which pointed out to the military authorities who in the Lexington area should be targeted for arrest, imprisonment, or deportation.
PAUSE & REFLECTION: Why didn’t the Civil War free the slaves in Lexington?
On January 31, 1865, the Republican U.S. Congress completed passage of the proposed 13th Amendment; and Kentucky’s Governor Bramlette recommended that the Kentucky ratification be contingent upon receipt of $34 million (the value of Kentucky’s slaves in 1864). Both houses of the Kentucky General Assembly rejected ratification of the 13th Amendment freeing the slaves; and, in fact, Kentucky did not ratify it until 1976 under the leadership of the two African-American legislators, Senator Georgia Powers and Rep. Mae Street Kidd. In February Major General John M. Palmer became commander of the military district of Kentucky and announced that he would use black enlistment as a means to free as many slaves as possible. It is hard to imagine now, but the 65,000 remaining slaves in Kentucky were still not legally free. During that spring and summer, General Palmer allowed free passes to black Kentuckians. “Palmer Passes” allowed many to leave the state, move to the cities to look for jobs, hike through the countryside looking for relatives, and many crowded into federal military camps hoping for food and protection from vigilantism. Many homes in Lexington, barely large enough to hold a few people, were filled with multiple families searching for a new life of freedom. Living conditions in the city became abysmal; disease and crime ran rampant.
On October 12th President Johnson lifted martial law in Kentucky. On December 15th the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision declaring illegal the federal law that emancipated the wives and children of black troops. This vengeful stance was overturned three days later, when on December 18, 1865, the U.S. Secretary of State announced that two-thirds of the states had ratified the 13th Amendment and it became a national law. Slavery had remained legal longer in Kentucky than in any other state except for Delaware. Lexington’s Emancipation Day celebration on January 1, 1866, included a military parade of blacks in full uniform followed by black businessmen and then several hundred children, ending with several hours of political speeches at the Lexington Fairgrounds.
Jim Crow laws
1860: Lexington's total population 9,521 included 600 free blacks, 2,480 slaves. By 1870 approximately 4600 freedmen migrated into Lexington, causing the black population to triple and making the whole town’s population nearly one-half black. Even those Lexingtonians who had supported the Union cause felt threatened by the prospect of the former slaves gaining basic citizenship rights. The first decade after the Civil War witnessed scenes of racial violence that clearly aimed to protect the antebellum status quo. For many elite Lexingtonians, this era also then emphasized the class differences among white citizens as their worst fears of African-American lawlessness were displaced by the ever-present realities of white bandits and vigilantism. Wealthy whites found themselves in the curious position of serving as allies for the Kentucky blacks whom they knew personally or whose credentials linked them with someone the white person knew. The old pass system, where the African-American businessperson or laborer would need to have a white patron vouch for their legitimacy in an economic transaction or movement beyond the racial boundaries, still flourished.
After the Civil War, agriculture and manufacturing productivity was badly crippled and Lexington’s fortunes suffered from the huge displacement of people and property. Violence in Lexington most often happened when a black person attempted to walk along public pathways near a hostile white person or when a black family attempted to make a living in the same vicinity of a jobless or landless white male. Kentucky’s refusal to enforce the federal Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1875 emboldened many whites to terrorize blacks and any whites who tried to support or protect them. Whites who called themselves Regulators, Bull Pups, Skaggs Men or the Ku Klux Klan continued the war-time violence in Fayette County. Major General Oliver O. Howard took it upon his own authority to extend the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands beyond the Tennessee border, establishing a branch headquarters in Lexington. Each of the four directors found out in turn that as they subsequently tried to carry out the Bureau’s implementation of fair contracts for blacks and the rights to personal safety and schooling, their agents were in great physical danger. Too few troops were assigned to protect the Freedman Bureau agents and those they tried to serve. In addition, contracts often resulted in disputes when the employer would accuse a worker of disobedience or laziness and refuse to make final payments. Apprenticeships, long a feature of Kentucky labor laws and used regularly in Lexington for children of both races, became a source of power for former white masters who could apprentice black children without the consent of parents or relatives. The courts often ruled for white supremacy status quo. The arrest and conviction of any white for crimes against black Lexingtonians rarely occurred. The rise of intolerance included a clear sense of who could sit, stand or walk in certain public areas. The Kentucky legislature began to implement Jim Crow laws: in 1876 the state endorsed the racial segregation of mental asylums and the world changed for those patients being served at the Lexington asylum, one of the oldest in the nation.
By the 1880s most African-Americans in Lexington worked in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs and owned little property. Over 90% of those who registered to vote indicated their loyalty to the party of Lincoln. In fact, by 1904, 76% of Lexington’s registered Republicans were black. But local politics, run by the ward boss Billy Klair, centered around the Democratic Party. The differences between Germans, Irish, Scots, and British – rich and poor – landowner or wage-earner – coalesced into a common culture of whiteness within the Democratic Party.
Lexington hosted two of the first Black Conventions where black leaders and white civil rights activists would meet to protest the restrictions on black rights. The first assembled on March 22, 1866, and called for a state central committee to organize future meetings. Over ninety people from all over the state attended the second conference in November 1867, the largest mass assembly of Kentucky’s black leaders ever. Delegates debated how to gain full civil rights for Blacks, including the right to vote and the right to testify in court against whites. Former Union soldiers bonded together in Loyal Leagues, para-military groups not unlike the vigilance committees of antebellum New England.
Many of the urban black communities of Lexington that began in the late 1860s continue to survive into the present day. Though before the war the black population – both enslaved and free – was scattered throughout the city, after the war migrants mainly from the six rural counties surrounding Lexington came to live in cheap housing on what was then the outskirts of town. “Pralltown” was developed from land near a railroad track southwest of the city subdivided in 1868 by a lawyer named John Prall. Landowners W.W. Bruce and George B. Kinkead sold land to form settlements named after them: Brucetown and Kinkeadtown. Brucetown developed in the area where the Union army had once stabled hundreds of mules, and with poor waste disposal and a high population density, disease quickly spread through the “shot gun” shacks. Davis Bottom, also near a railroad, was a poorly drained bottomland which already had an antebellum African-American community and it became densely populated in this time period. Other shantytowns sprang up: Goodlowtown and Adamstown also near railroads, though others like Taylortown and Smithtown grew up from acreage that was once part of an elite white family’s town plot. Goodlowtown became the largest of the black communities by the 1880s. Virtually all of the small antebellum black areas close to the expanding central business center of Lexington vanished as the land values began to climb, vagrancy laws grew more rigid, and racial violence escalated.
The continued rejections of federal Civil Rights legislation and constitutional amendments combined with the failed efforts at the state level for basic human rights. Black leaders working toward ratification of the 14th amendment organized a barbecue in Lexington on July 4, 1867, which included many white speakers in favor of black suffrage. Blacks finally voted in the Kentucky governor’s race for the first time in 1871, but the city charter was amended in 1871 to delegate power to the City Council to elect not only the mayor but all the city officials, thus negating the anticipated power of the black vote. The revised charter also imposed a poll tax on voting which effectively restrained any poor voter participation. The police aggressively enforced the new, broadly defined vagrancy laws. The bill that would allow for black testimony in courts failed until 1872. Land transfers often included exclusion clauses that disallowed black ownership along with the sale of alcohol. By the 1880s and ‘90s, Lexington’s Jim Crow laws were in full force.
At the same time black churches and black-owned businesses began actively asserting their separateness and formed myriad black organizations and benevolent societies. Even before the war ended, the black communities of Lexington discussed the future of a public school system for their children. Little or no state public funds come until 1874 for black children’s education, however, by the fall of 1865 there were five grade schools with three hundred tuition-paying students. In 1867 the black First Baptist church hosted the State Convention of Colored Baptists, and in 1869, reorganized as the General Association of Colored Baptists which established a State Sunday School Board, planned a church newspaper and committed to the founding of a college for the education of black ministers. This institution was eventually founded in Louisville as State University.
A thriving African-American business community found avenues for a well-connected entrepreneur in their midst. Downtown Lexington boasted many black-owned barber shops, bakeries, restaurants, catering businesses and boarding houses. The Lexington Colored Agricultural and Mechanical Association, formed in 1869 by black community leaders, was a financial success. In September 1893 the Lexington Colored Fair reported its largest attendance: 12,000. The event had been supported by whites as well as the black communities as a way to promote the new separateness. Black churches, always a locus of socio-economic power for black Lexingtonians – free or enslaved – became even more important in terms of education, business connections, and political strategy-building. Lexington had many different menial jobs for unskilled laborers who did not want to return to the fields after emancipation. There were small properties for sale or lease where former field slaves could settle into their own homes and work their own land. Black entrepreneurs could dominate some key businesses like hauling materials by horse and wagon. Though most blacks did not earn enough money to own property, the benefits of living in or near Lexington, despite the low wages and even among fearful and hostile whites, far outweighed the risks.
The dramatic changes in the size of the city with the rise of the urban black communities and the impoverished nature of the majority of her inhabitants combined poorly with the white population’s continued mistrust of the federal government. Vigilantism targeting the new black urban population and the strict regulations on black labor kept Lexington from growing into the type of cities like Louisville, Covington and Newport. In the 1890s, during a time when, according to Duane Bolin’s book, Bossism and Reform in a Southern City, Lexington had the highest murder rate per capita in the nation. Despite the efforts of progressive Lexingtonians the city fell in rank among cities in the U.S.: from 110th largest city in 1880 to 153rd in 1900. In general, Kentucky began its long fall in all sorts of national rankings. At the same time, Lexington’s boundaries began to change; and, the growth of a well-oiled mass transit system allowed for the majority of Lexington’s white population to find suitable housing in outlying subdivisions. But, her growth as an urban transit center was outpaced by more cosmopolitan areas. Lexington’s black population census numbers were more like Nashville and Birmingham than Louisville or Covington. The number of foreign-born citizens, as high as 49% in Cincinnati or 38% in Louisville, was barely 12% in Lexington.
Lexington’s black community did not remain silent in the face of obvious attempts to keep the black population in its “place.” The Soldiers League of Lexington had long worked to educate its members of national events and to lobby for black political rights. Under the three decade rule by Billy Klair, Lexington’s political boss behind the scenes, black neighborhoods were gerrymandered out of the city electorate and those who did vote their conscience were intimidated or even murdered. This threat did not stop many brave Lexingtonians. Robert Charles O’Hara Benjamin, born 1855 in the West Indies, was a lawyer and journalist. He served as an editor of one of Lexington’s earliest African-American newspapers, the Lexington Standard. He was killed on Oct. 2, 1900, while working to register black voters.
Lexington’s white population held the upper hand in the city even though at least half of her population was black: African-Americans held less than one tenth of the city’s wealth. The 1870s, ‘80s and ‘90s in Kentucky were rife with cultural conflict. The insistence on white superiority over black civil and human rights was exacerbated by the unsettling prospect of women taking more active political roles in public. Lexington, in the center of the Bluegrass area of hemp and bloodstock breeding, had always had a clear sense of boundaries between the races, but the city did not geographically divide along racial lines until after the Civil War. The spatial areas bounded by race were not large: a working-class neighborhood in Lexington’s north side suburbs had white residents on one side of the street and blacks on the other side and sat only one block away from turn-of-the-century city mansions owned by the white professional class.
Separatism of Lexington’s Club Women and Woman Suffrage
Overall, Lexington women were a powerful force in their own right. The Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubsformed in 1894 under the leadership of Lexington’s Mary Gratz Morton. African-American women in Lexington spearheaded a separate club movement. The establishment of the Colored Orphan and Industrial Home, founded in 1892 in Lexington by Eliza Belle Jackson from Boyle County and other elite African-American women, is a good example. This Home offered shelter and care for orphans and destitute elderly women while supporting itself through cottage industries such as shoemaking. However, the founders believed that the children should be isolated from the rest of the black community in the hopes of inculcating a different worldview. They were taught self-help principles promoted by the national leader, Booker T. Washington. One of the most respected women leaders of the Lexington black community was Elizabeth “Lizzie” Cooke Fouse. As the first president of the Kentucky Federation of Colored Women, she networked with local and national club women to promote racial equality, increase access to public assistance, and to help improve the cultural opportunities for blacks. Fouse founded the Phyllis Wheatley branch of the Y.W C.A. in 1920 and led the City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs, including the Acme Art and Culture Club, the Women’s Improvement Club and Day Nursery (volunteers who staffed a nursery for black children of working women), and the women’s auxiliary of the Emancipation League. It was during this time that Mary E. Britton, an African-American school teacher, went on to earn her M.D. and was the first woman physician licensed to practice medicine in Lexington.