African American Encyclopedia reveals untold Kentucky stories

Gerald Smith and his co-editors spent most of a decade working on the newly published Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. It wasn’t just research, writing and editing; they had to raise much of the project’s $400,000 budget.

In addition to courting big donors, they gave dozens of fundraising presentations in small-town libraries, churches and community centers across the state.

Those presentations often led to conversations, driving tours, stashes of newspaper clippings and walks through cemeteries with the keepers of community history.

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Gerald Smith and co-editors Karen Cotton McDaniel and John A. Hardin and a staff of graduate students compiled  the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia. Photo by Tom Eblen

The content of the encyclopedia (University Press of Kentucky, 551 pages, $49.95) is much richer for that process, Smith said. Many fascinating stories had never made it beyond the counties where they happened.

Amateur historians were an enormous help to Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor, and his co-editors, Karen Cotton McDaniel, a retired Kentucky State University professor and director of libraries, and John A. Hardin, a history professor at Western Kentucky University.

“I can’t tell you how many folks we met like Yvonne Giles,” Smith said, referring to the woman whose years of research have made her an authority on black history in Lexington.

“They could point out all the places, tell you the history of the buildings,” Smith said. “It takes special people like that who are working at the grassroots level.”

The editors also discovered small archives, sometimes in unlikely places.

Smith got a surprise when he spoke at the public library in Owingsville, the seat of Bath County, which Census records show now has only about 15 black residents.

“They had a nice clippings file on African-Americans; who would have ever thought?” Smith said. “That’s why we had to go to see what was out there, and to meet and visit and talk to people.”

That file included information about the Owingsville Giants, which helped prompt Sallie Powell, the encyclopedia’s associate editor, to research and write a detailed entry about Kentucky’s black baseball clubs between the late 1800s and 1960s.

Smith said the saddest part of editing the encyclopedia was recounting tragedies of racism, large and small.

There is the horrific story of Isham and Lilburne Lewis, nephews of President Thomas Jefferson, who in 1811 took an ax and in a drunken rage murdered a slave child they thought had tried to run away after breaking their mother’s pitcher.

More common were the pervasive acts of discrimination used for two centuries to keep black Kentuckians down.

For example, who knew there were black bicycle racers in Louisville in the 1890s?

The Union Bicycle Club may have been the largest club of black riders in the country during a decade when cycling became a wildly popular American pastime.

But the club’s success led William Wagner Watts, a white cyclist and Louisville attorney, to successfully lobby the League of American Wheelmen in 1894 to exclude blacks from membership. That move sparked national controversy.

What is amazing is that so many black Kentuckians found ways to succeed before the civil rights movement. “I didn’t realize there were that many African-Americans from Kentucky who went on to serve as college presidents,” Smith said.

Many had to leave Kentucky to achieve their goals; for example, George French Ecton, a runaway slave from Winchester, in the 1880s became the first black elected to the Illinois General Assembly.

“When you look at that, you think about how many African-Americans could have been governor or senator or the president of the University of Kentucky or Eastern or Western,” Smith said. “They had all the skills necessary to be successful but were denied the opportunity.”

The encyclopedia’s research files, many of which did not result in completed entries, have been turned over to University of Kentucky Special Collections so future researchers can use them.

The editors expect the encyclopedia to generate some controversy because of their decisions about what would and wouldn’t be included. For example, they had a bias toward telling new and little-known stories rather than rehashing some famous ones that have often been told in other books.

“It helps serve another purpose of the encyclopedia, and that is to generate new discussions and debates,” Smith said. “This is actually a beginning rather than an ending, because what this is going to do is churn up even more material. I’m hoping it will inspire more people to not only want to learn about Kentucky history, but to understand it and to preserve it.”

Book signing

What: Editors of the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia will sign copies, along with authors of other books produced by faculty of the University of Kentucky Department of History.

When: 5 p.m. Sept. 18

Where: The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.



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