Amid slavery, some free blacks prospered in Antebellum Lexington

February 21, 2015

150220FreeBlacks0016Samuel Oldham, who bought his freedom and later that of his wife and children, build this house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. He owned barber shops and a spa. After years of neglect, the house was restored in 2007. Photos by Tom Eblen


Slaves were everywhere in Lexington before the Civil War: cooking in white people’s kitchens, cleaning their houses, washing and mending their clothes and working in their hemp fields and factories.

Slaves also were on the auction block and whipping post at Cheapside and in three downtown “jails” that became major way stations in the Southern slave trade.

But a lesser-known piece of Lexington history is that many free blacks lived side-by-side with slaves and masters. The 1850 census showed the city with 8,159 residents, including 2,309 slaves and 479 free people of color.

Many were skilled craftsmen who had been given their freedom, or found ways to earn enough money to buy it. Once free, they often worked years to buy the freedom of their wives, children and other relatives.

Some free blacks became so financially successful that they built or bought fine homes for themselves, acquired rental property and helped their church congregations grow and prosper.

“There weren’t separate enclaves then,” said Yvonne Giles, who has extensively researched black history in Lexington. “They lived among the white community.”

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper St., left, about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. At right is a rental house owned by another free black, blacksmith Rolla Blue, who lived on South Limestone.

That wasn’t for lack of racism. White people tolerated and, to some degree, accepted these free black masons, blacksmiths, plasterers, carpenters, coopers, barbers and confectioners because they had to.

“In order for Lexington to prosper, they needed these skilled laborers,” Giles said. “If they hassled them, they would have left. They didn’t go because they felt protected.”

Giles has searched census documents, court records and old newspapers to document the lives of many free blacks in antebellum Lexington. Others who also have researched the topic include historians Marion Lucas, Alicestyne Turley and Rachel Kennedy.

Their work reveals interesting lives of accomplishment, and legacies that still endure. No photographs of them are known to exist, Giles said. But the houses built or owned by several successful free blacks in the South Hill neighborhood have been restored into valuable historic homes.

Perhaps the best known today is Samuel Oldham, who built a handsome house at 245 South Limestone in 1835. After years of neglect and the threat of demolition, it was restored in 2007.

Oldham was a barber who bought himself out of slavery in 1826, then earned enough to free his wife, Daphney, and their two sons. He operated barbershops and a spa, helped other blacks with legal issues and bought freedom for several slaves.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in the establishment of black schools.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill, the left side of this duplex. He was a plasterer and minister.

Daphney Oldham, a seamstress, and her house were the inspiration for playwright Ain Gordon’s 2008 one-woman play, In This Place.

Michael and Hannah Clarke built 344 South Upper Street about 1818. He was a waiter and carpenter; she a laundress and seamstress. Billy and Hannah Tucker, who owned a confectionery shop downtown, lived at 521 South Upper in the 1840s.

Blacksmith Rolla Blue and his wife, Rachel, lived in a South Limestone house that no longer exists. But they owned 346 South Upper and rented it. Upon his death in the 1840s, Blue left a considerable estate with instructions that it be used to buy freedom for enslaved relatives.

James Turner and his wife, Arena, lived in the 1850s at 331 South Mill. He was a plasterer and minister who after the Civil War was active in black education.

Many of these men were important black community leaders and church trustees, in part because their freedom allowed them to borrow money and sign legal documents. They helped establish and grow some of Lexington’s most prominent black congregations, including First African Baptist, Historic Pleasant Green Baptist and Historic St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal.

Two well-known free black ministers were London Ferrill of First African Baptist Church and his successor, Frederick Braxton, who oversaw construction of the 1856 sanctuary that still stands at Short and Deweese streets. In the 1860s, Braxton helped start two other prominent Baptist churches, Main Street and Bracktown.

Still, Giles said, life could be precarious for free blacks in antebellum Lexington. They had to carry papers proving they were free. Even with papers, they lived in fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery and of offending the wrong people.

“Being a free black didn’t mean you were really free,” she said. “If they didn’t stay on the good side of white people who would support and protect them, they were lost.”

Alice Dunnigan’s amazing story, from Ky. segregation to Capitol Hill

February 7, 2015

150208Dunnigan002President John F. Kennedy reaches down to speak with Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist.   Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker


Alice Allison Dunnigan grew up on a red-clay hill in Logan County, the daughter of a poor sharecropper and a washerwoman.

She, too, would wash clothes and clean houses for white people before working her way through Kentucky State University to realize her first big dream, becoming a school teacher.

But Dunnigan is remembered today for climbing another hill — Capitol Hill — where in the late 1940s she became the first black woman journalist accredited to Congress, the White House and other major assignments in Washington, D.C.

Dunnigan died in 1983 at age 77, but Carol McCabe Booker, a former journalist and lawyer, remembers meeting her once at a party. Dunnigan was a friend of Booker’s husband, Simeon, 96, another pioneering black journalist.

But it wasn’t until two years ago, when the National Association of Black Journalists inducted both Dunnigan and Simeon Booker into its hall of fame, that Booker learned more about this woman’s amazing life story.

She tracked down a rare copy of Dunnigan’s 1974 self-published autobiography, A Black Woman’s Experience: From Schoolhouse to White House. It inspired her to edit a new edition of the book, which the University of Georgia Press will publish Feb. 15 as Alone atop the Hill ($26.95).

150208Dunnigan003Booker will be in Kentucky next week to talk about Dunnigan and sign books. She speaks Feb. 17 at the Kentucky Historical Society‘s monthly Food for Thought lunch in Frankfort ($25, or $20 for members; reservations due Feb. 13. Call (502) 564-1792, ext. 4414, or email

The next day, Booker speaks to KSU students. And on Feb. 19, she goes to Dunnigan’s hometown for a free, public event at 2 p.m. in Russellville’s African American Heritage Center, 252 South Morgan Street, sponsored by the Kentucky Human Rights Commission.

Dunnigan tells her compelling story in the clear, direct style that made her an influential voice in black newspapers nationwide when she was Washington bureau chief for the Associated Negro Press news service.

“I thought she deserved the right to tell her story in her own words, in her own voice,” Booker said when we talked by phone last week. “I wanted Alice to have a chance in this new era.”

Dunnigan’s writing needed little editing, Booker said. But she did make one big change: she cut the 670-page autobiography by more than half, leaving out the last chapters that covered her years in government service after she left her poverty-wage journalism job in 1960. The final chapters were not nearly as interesting as the rest of the story, Booker said.

The new book is a fascinating read, filled with anecdotes that show how pervasive discrimination limited possibilities for both blacks and women at the time. Dunnigan always thought her gender was as much of a hindrance as her race.

“That’s why I think the story has wide appeal,” Booker said. “A young woman of any race reading that story can glean some inspiration from it.”

Dunnigan’s motto was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” She decided at age 13 to become both a teacher and a journalist to “tell people how to improve their lives.” But her parents and husbands from two failed marriages offered little encouragement.

Even after Dunnigan “made it” in Washington, she was barred from some venues, or had to sit with servants at events instead of with other reporters. She endured openly racist congressmen and President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s refusal to answer her tough news conference questions about discrimination and civil rights.

Dunnigan, the first black woman elected to the Women’s National Press Club, got access to power because she demanded it. She won respect and dozens of journalism awards for her accuracy, fairness and persistence.

But she never made much money in journalism. Dunnigan often had to pay her own travel expenses to cover stories, and she writes of pawning her watch each Saturday so she would have enough money to eat until her paycheck arrived on Monday.

A year before her death, Dunnigan published her second book, The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: Their Heritage and Tradition. It is a collection of sketches she wrote in the 1930s to inspire students in the segregated schools where she taught.

“You could say that Alice had one fantastic career as a communicator in three venues — teaching, journalism and government,” Booker said. “It was being a teacher on a broader level.”

150208Dunnigan001Alice Dunnigan, the Russellville native who became the first black woman to be a widely accredited Washington journalist, greets A.B. “Happy” Chandler, the former Kentucky governor, senator and U.S. baseball commissioner.  Photo courtesy of Carol McCabe Booker

Black History Month founder was also an Appalachian coal miner

February 3, 2015

For several years, I have written a series of columns each February about little-known aspects of the history of Kentucky citizens of African descent.

So it seemed fitting to begin this year’s series with a look at the man who created Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson. A prolific author, historian and activist, he was the key figure in the recognition of black history as an academic specialty.

150204Woodson0002But before all of that, Woodson grew up in Appalachia, worked as a coal miner and began his academic career as a student at Berea College.

Many people don’t know about Woodson’s Appalachian roots, said Alicestyne Turley, director of Berea’s Carter G. Woodson Center for Interracial Education and an assistant professor of African and African American Studies.

“In fact, I never knew he had been a student at Berea until I came here,” she said. “It just never came up on the radar.”

Woodson was born in 1875 near New Canton, Va., the oldest of nine children of former slaves. After the Civil War, his parents moved to West Virginia when they heard Huntington was building a high school for blacks.

Woodson studied on his own while working as a coal miner. He wasn’t able to enter that high school until he was 20, but it took him only two years to earn a diploma.

“He had everything you would normally think of in an Appalachian background — except that he was black,” Turley said.

“Honestly, historians have not done a lot of work on his early life,” she added. “I wonder: what was he doing then besides working in the coal mines?”

After high school, Woodson began teaching in Winona, W.Va., at a school that black coal miners started for their children. But he wanted more education, and Berea College seemed a logical choice.

Berea was founded in 1855 by abolitionist John G. Fee on land given him by Cassius Clay of Lexington, an outspoken emancipationist newspaper publisher. It became the first non-segregated, co-educational school in the South.

Woodson commuted from West Virginia by train and only studied part-time. Still, he managed to earn a bachelor’s of literature degree in 1903. His timing could not have been better.

150204Woodson0001The next year, Kentucky’s General Assembly passed the Day Law, which prohibited blacks and whites from attending school together. That law wasn’t repealed until 1950, and during the decades in between, Berea shifted its focus to white Appalachian students of modest means.

Woodson went on to earn another bachelor’s and a master’s degree in European History from the University of Chicago, and he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1912, he became the second black person, after W.E.B. Du Boise, to earn a doctorate from Harvard University.

Frustrated that white scholars were either ignoring or misrepresenting the history of his people, Woodson started what is now the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, which celebrates its centennial this year.

The association sponsored conferences, primarily to teachers of black children. Woodson edited the association’s Journal of Negro History until he died in 1950.

Woodson founded Associated Publishers in 1920, which was the nation’s oldest black-owned book publisher when it was dissolved in 2005.

In 1926, Woodson launched Negro History Week, sandwiched between the birthdates of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass on Feb. 12 and Feb. 20.

“He had to fight to get that week,” Turley said. But the concept gained acceptance and spread, eventually becoming Black History Month.

Woodson, who spent most of his academic career at Howard University in Washington, D.C., also became a political activist and a regular columnist for Marcus Garvey’s weekly newspaper, Negro World.

He wrote more than two dozen influential articles and books, the most famous of which was “The Mis-Education of the Negro,” published in 1933.

“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” one of the book’s frequently quoted passages says. “You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it.”

After Woodson left Berea, he continued a correspondence with the college’s president, William Frost. Turley said those letters are revealing.

“He often talks about what he learned at Berea,” she said. “He understood Berea’s commitments of learning, labor and service. Those were things that stayed with him the rest of his life.”

Like much of local black history, 1920s blues song a surprise

February 23, 2014

February is Black History Month, and this is the third year I have written one column a week during the month about Kentucky black history.

I’ve always found history interesting, but working on these pieces has been a special treat, because much of this information is new to both me and most Herald-Leader readers.

While I do some of the research myself, I get a lot of help from professional and amateur historians, both black and white. Like me, they have become fascinated with this rich vein of history that until recent years was rarely explored or publicized.

Special thanks this year to these sources for research, ideas and other information:

  • Yvonne Giles, an amateur historian who has become an authority on Lexington black history. Her extensive research on the Lexington Colored Fair was invaluable.
  • Maureen Peters, a Lexington architect, who pointed me to outstanding research that she and her friend, the architectural historian Rebecca McCarley, had done on brick mason and entrepreneur Henry Tandy and his son, architect Vertner Woodson Tandy.
  • Thomas Tolliver, a former Herald-Leader reporter who lives in the East End and is passionate about preserving its history.
  • Former State Sen. Georgia Powers of Louisville, who generously shared her own story and information about how the 1964 March on Frankfort was organized.
  • Former State Sen. Joe Graves of Lexington, another March on Frankfort organizer, who candidly discussed how the civil rights movement influenced his life and the white community.
  • The Kentucky Historical Society.

As a postscript, Kakie Urch, an assistant professor in the University of Kentucky’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications and a radio host on WRFL, sent me a 1920s blues song I had never heard of before: The Lexington Kentucky Blues, by Papa Charlie Jackson.

Click on the video below to hear Jackson singing about coming to Lexington to play at the Colored Fair, seeing the great racehorse Man O’ War, going to the races, spending time on Limestone Street and meeting J. Rice Porter, the Colored Fair’s president from 1926-28. It sounds as if he had a great time.

Like much of local black history before I started this project, the Lexington Kentucky Blues was new to me.



50 years ago, March on Frankfort pushed Kentucky toward change

February 1, 2014

 march3The March on Frankfort crowd, estimated at 10,000, stretched from the Capitol steps down Capitol Avenue on March 5, 1964. Associated Press photos


This is the story of a black woman from Louisville and a white man from Lexington who helped bring 10,000 people to Frankfort to change Kentucky forever.

The March on Frankfort on March 5, 1964, featured the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; Jackie Robinson, who had broken major-league baseball’s color barrier; and the popular folksingers Peter, Paul and Mary.

The 10,000 people who marched to the Capitol steps that cold, wet day were demanding state legislation to keep blacks from being discriminated against in restaurants, hotels and other public accommodations.

March organizers knew that Kentucky lawmakers needed public pressure to force them to do the right thing, which has so often been the case.

To mark the 50th anniversary of what became one of the nation’s most significant civil rights protests, the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights and other groups plan a re-enactment on March 5. (For more information:

The March on Frankfort was the brainchild of the late Frank Stanley Jr., editor of The Louisville Defender, a black newspaper. He recruited King, Robinson and Peter, Paul and Mary to draw national attention to the event, while a network of civil rights and religious leaders throughout Kentucky raised an army of people to march behind them.

march2Georgia Davis Powers was office manager for the march’s organizing committee, Allied Organization for Civil Rights. She came to the role with experience, having organized volunteers for Lt. Gov. Wilson Wyatt’s losing bid for the U.S. Senate in 1962 and Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt’s successful campaign for governor in 1963.

But Powers, now 90, told me recently that she began her personal campaign against discrimination many years earlier. Because her factory-worker father was talented enough to get “a white man’s job,” she grew up in Louisville’s black middle class.

“I had a little white girlfriend who was my age, 8 years old, and we wanted to go to school together, but we couldn’t,” she said. “When you are discriminated against, it does something to your psyche and you never get over it.”

Powers’ job on the day of the march was to pick up King and Robinson at Louisville’s airport and bring them to Frankfort. Her brother, who worked at a funeral, got a limousine, and they arranged for a police escort.

“Jackie Robinson rode up front with my brother, and Dr. King got in the back seat with me because I needed to brief him on the bill, where it stood and what I thought the possibilities were,” Powers said. “That was the first time I’d met him.”

She marched a few steps behind King that day and sat beside the stage as he, Robinson and others made remarks to the rain-soaked crowd.

Breathitt wasn’t at the march, although his 15-year-old daughter, Mary Frances, was among the marchers. A reporter told Powers the governor was in his office. “Since he won’t come out,” she told other march leaders, “we’ll go see him.”

So when the benediction had been said and the crowd began dispersing, Powers led King, Robinson, Stanley and a few others inside the Capitol. She knocked on the governor’s door.

The civil rights leaders had a cordial meeting with Breathitt and posed for photographs. But Powers said he was non-committal, explaining that as a new governor he needed to build rapport with legislators.

“He said, ‘I’ll do what I can,'” she recalled. “But the bill failed.”

When the General Assembly met next, in 1966, Kentucky became the first Southern state to enact a civil rights law. Breathitt backed the law. Others instrumental in its passage included Rep. Foster Pettit, who would later become the first mayor of Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government, and John Y. Brown Sr., father of the future governor.

A key organizer of white participation in the March on Frankfort was Joe Graves of Lexington, whose background could not have been more different than Powers’.

Graves’ great-grandfather was the younger brother of Andrew Carnegie, one of the richest men in 19th century America. The industrialist later became a philanthropist, leaving a legacy of public library buildings in communities across the nation. Graves’ father owned Graves-Cox, a popular store where well-dressed Lexington men bought their clothes.

Like Powers, Graves said his fight against discrimination began in childhood.

When Graves was 9, illness confined him to a wheelchair. The Carnegie family owned almost all of scenic Cumberland Island off the Georgia coast, and he spent time there with relatives. The family hired a black boy his age named William to be a companion.

Graves, 83, recalled in an interview last week how he and William were playing in his aunt’s yard one day at lunchtime, and he called out to her asking if William could stay for lunch. William said, “Joe, I can’t do that. I’m going home for lunch.”

“My aunt couldn’t have heard what he said,” Graves recalled. “But she said, ‘I’m sure William’s mother is expecting him home for lunch.’ I knew something was strange.”

In 1957, while working in his family’s clothing store, Graves persuaded his father to promote a black stock clerk to a sales position so he wouldn’t leave for a better-paying job. The man became the first black clerk in a major Lexington store, and he was so good at it that commissions tripled his previous salary, Graves said.

Three years after, Graves was on the first Lexington Human Rights Commission, negotiating desegregation of the city’s movie theaters. On the day of the March on Frankfort, he was co-chair of Kentuckians for Public Accommodations.

For both Powers and Graves, the March on Frankfort was the beginning of political careers with an emphasis on civil rights.

In 1967, Powers became the first black and the first sixth woman elected to the Kentucky Senate. During 21 years in office, she sponsored much legislation furthering rights for minorities, women and children.

Powers helped lead civil rights marches in several Southern cities. She became a close confidante of King and was with him in Memphis in April 1968 when he was killed. In 1989, the autobiography of King’s top lieutenant, Ralph David Abernathy, disclosed that Powers and King also were lovers.

Graves would go on to be a Lexington councilman and work for the election of the city’s first black councilman, Harry Sykes. Graves served in both the state House and Senate in the 1970s.

“As I took that march,” Graves recalled of that day 50 years ago, “I kept thinking of all the people (King) helped and was trying to help.”

Toward the end of our conversation last week, Graves’ voice choked as he told me how he has written instructions for his funeral. He has asked for a mixed-race choir to sing at the service, he said, “and one of the hymns has to be, We Shall Overcome.”



The march headliners were the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., center, and baseball great Jackie Robinson, left. Associated Press photo.


King was the featured speaker on the cold, rainy day. Herald-Leader photo.


Gov. Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt, right, met with, left to right, Frank Stanley Jr., Jackie Robinson and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  Photo by Bob Daugherty/Associated Press

Click here to see a gallery with these and other photos from the 1964 march.



William Wells Brown bio will reveal he wasn’t born in Lexington

February 19, 2013

“I was born in Lexington, Ky.”

That is the first sentence of the first chapter of the first manuscript published by William Wells Brown, the first and most prolific black writer published in the 19th century. And it appears to be wrong.

Rather than being born in Lexington — as Brown might have believed when he wrote the 1847 narrative of his life in and escape from slavery — he was born on a Montgomery County farm near Mount Sterling.

That is one of several discoveries Ezra Greenspan, an English professor at Southern Methodist University in Texas, has made as he has researched and written the first comprehensive biography of Brown.

Greenspan is now finishing the book, which he said W.W. Norton & Co. will publish in 2014. Also next year, The Library of America will publish the second volume of Brown’s writings that Greenspan has edited. William Wells Brown: A Reader was published by The University of Georgia Press in 2008.

“He is one of the great lives in American history,” Greenspan said of Brown. “He is being recognized now, and it’s long overdue, as being the leading force in 19th-century African-American culture.”

After escaping from slavery in 1834, Brown helped other fugitive slaves get to Canada. He taught himself to read and write, became a leading anti-slavery speaker and then launched into an impressive literary career.

Brown wrote the first published black novel, play, travelogue and song book. He wrote three major volumes of black history, including the first examining black service in the Civil War. He later traveled widely to advocate for temperance, education and social improvement of the black community.

Brown’s most famous book was his novel, Clotel; or, the President’s Daughter, which created a sensation when published in London in 1853. The title character is the daughter of a slave and President Thomas Jefferson. The book’s inspiration was the rumors that had long swirled about Jefferson’s now-proven relationship with his mixed-race slave, Sally Hemings.

Greenspan’s research included visiting places across America and Britain where Brown lived and worked. He came to Lexington last fall looking for evidence of Brown’s birth and owner, physician John Young. He found none.

Then, in an old copy of the Kentucky Gazette, he found a notice Young had placed telling of a smallpox epidemic in Mount Sterling. So he went to search Montgomery County court records “and Dr. John Young was all over the place.”

Greenspan also found records about the man Brown identified in his 1847 narrative as his biological father, Young’s cousin George W. Higgins, who married soon afterward and moved to Alabama.

Brown left Kentucky about age 3, when Young moved West to Missouri, settling on a large farm 60 miles west of St. Louis.

Greenspan found a lot of information about the white side of Brown’s family, but his slave ancestry remains sketchy — both in where his mother’s people came from and where they ended up. Brown’s beloved sister was sold South as a teenager, likely as part of the sex trade. His mother also was sold South, after a 17-year-old Brown persuaded her to make an unsuccessful escape attempt with him.

“Brown certainly had a sense of himself as a Kentuckian, even though the connections were loose,” Greenspan said.

He said his book would add a lot of information to what has been known about Brown and his work. But many aspects of Brown’s tumultuous private life, which included two wives and several daughters, will remain a mystery. Brown died in 1884 in Chelsea, Mass.

“Even though Brown was the most prolific black writer of the century, there are no private letters that have survived of Brown and his own family,” he said. “But the family was explosive.”

For Brown to rise from slavery, educate himself and accomplish so much is truly remarkable, Greenspan said.

“He was a person of extraordinary intelligence and perception,” he said. “Basically, it’s a story of native qualities and astounding life experience.”

Because next year will be the bicentennial of Brown’s birth, Greenspan hopes states and cities where he lived will organize commemorations. He hopes to return to speak next year in Lexington, where last fall he happened upon the new William Wells Brown Elementary School in the East End.

“I was so impressed by the way they set up the community center and the school together,” he said. “It’s exactly in the mold of Brown’s reform activities: education and community reform go hand-in-hand.”