BARDSTOWN — Gerald Smith, a Lexington native and University of Kentucky history professor, had never visited My Old Kentucky Home State Park before last summer.
Smith arrived early for a speaking engagement at the Nelson County Public Library and had a couple of hours to kill. So he and a student decided to take the park’s tour of Federal Hill, the Rowan family mansion where, legend has it, Stephen Collins Foster was inspired to write Kentucky’s state song.
“The people were very nice,” Smith said. But he noticed that the tour guide, dressed in a hoop skirt, kept referring to the “servants.”
“I finally said, ‘You mean the slaves?’” Smith recalled.
The tour didn’t include the mansion’s attic or basement, where slaves lived, or small rooms beside the kitchen, where they worked.
Finally, Smith asked where the slaves were buried. In the cemetery beside the garden? No, the guide said. Out back. Way out back.
Smith and student A.J. Hartsfield walked across a field to a stand of old trees. Underneath, inside a split-rail fence, were 22 small, unmarked stones and a plaque dedicated in 1945 to Judge John Rowan’s “faithful retainers.”
“As we approached the entrance to the little wooden fence, this guy was looking for his golf ball,” Smith said. The cemetery is in the bend of the 13th hole of the park’s golf course. Balls frequently land there.
“There was nothing sacred about it,” Smith said of the slave cemetery. “It was painful. It was sad.”
Smith went home and shared his experience with two other prominent African-Americans, Lexington writer Frank X Walker and Everett McCorvey, the UK Opera Theatre director who has sung My Old Kentucky Home many times in concerts here and overseas.
They decided to approach state officials with a simple message: We must do better. And, with the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games about to focus the world’s attention on Kentucky, we must do it quickly.
“Folks sing the song; it stirs up such emotion,” Smith said. “It celebrates the state’s history and culture and hospitality and traditions. But this is the way we remember the people who built and lived and worked at this symbol, this monument, this shrine to Kentucky. The African-American presence here has been erased.”
Smith, McCorvey and Walker were hardly the first to complain. But their message seems to have been heard — loud and clear.
“We have already taken a number of steps to interpret things better,” said Gerry Van der Meer, the state parks commissioner. “There’s a bit of uncomfortableness, naturally, about slavery. But it’s a fact. It’s a part of history. We’re embracing this.”
Several changes are planned for My Old Kentucky Home. And Van der Meer has ordered a review of how African-American history is interpreted at all state-run parks and historic sites.
Historically, a raw nerve
My Old Kentucky Home, the place and the song, hold special significance, both for Kentucky’s international image and its complex history of race relations.
The mansion is one of Kentucky’s most recognizable landmarks, depicted on both the state’s postage stamp and quarter. It is the state’s most-visited historic site, with more than 55,000 people touring the mansion each year.
My Old Kentucky Home is the most famous song about the state, sung for an international television audience by more than 100,000 people in the Churchill Downs grandstand before the Kentucky Derby each May. But it wasn’t until 1986 that the word “darkies” in the song’s lyrics was officially changed to “people.”
Foster published the song in 1853, as Kentucky was in the cross-hairs of the national debate over slavery that would lead to the Civil War.
While many people love the song for its romanticized view of Kentucky, they rarely sing past the first verse. The complete song, which Foster originally called Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night, is actually about a slave being “sold down the river.”
While researching My Old Kentucky Home, Smith came across a journal article by the late Thomas Clark, Kentucky’s most eminent historian, published in 1936. It discussed parallels between the song and the controversial, anti-slavery novel of Foster’s time, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Many whites have always tried to portray slavery in Kentucky as somehow more humane than in the Deep South, but abolitionists of the 1850s argued just the opposite, Clark wrote. That’s because slavery in Kentucky was more personal.
Plantations were smaller, and Kentucky slaves had more interaction with their owners than in many Southern states. Whippings and runaways were common, and tens of thousands of Kentucky slaves were separated from their families each year and sold in the South for profit as the cotton, sugar and rice industries grew.
“It is significant,” Clark wrote more than 70 years ago, “that the author’s use of a title obscured his context sufficiently to cause Kentuckians, to whom Uncle Tom’s Cabin was anathema, to take the song to their hearts and claim it as their very own.”
For years after state officials opened Federal Hill to tourists in 1923, black men were hired to walk around portraying Foster’s song characters “Old Black Joe” and “Old Uncle Ned.”
“They fit that standard stereotype of the happy servant who was there to welcome the white guests to the mansion,” Smith said.
He sees the 1945 cemetery plaque honoring Rowan’s “faithful retainers” as part of the effort to soften Kentucky’s collective memory.
“If we allow the site to exist the way it is now, then we perpetuate the myth that slavery was a benign institution in Kentucky,” said Smith, who has been working for years on the Kentucky African-American Encyclopedia project. “This is not about compensatory history. It’s just about history.”
Park changes planned
Officials are working on several modifications at My Old Kentucky Home State Park, where the mansion has been meticulously restored and chimes broadcast Foster tunes across the grounds.
Tour guide scripts are being revised to reflect research on slaves at Federal Hill, who numbered from two to 100 at any given time between the 1790s and 1865. Interpretive displays are planned as money becomes available.
Eventually, the park would like to have audio tour equipment to supplement its small guide staff.
Park Director Alice Willett Heaton is seeking an archaeological survey to find cabin foundations and other evidence of where slaves lived and worked. It is thought the cabins were located near the amphitheater where a Stephen Foster musical has been performed since 1958.
Safety and accessibility issues may keep the attic and basement closed to visitors, Heaton said. But there are discussions about converting one of the rooms beside the kitchen into a place to explain slavery at Federal Hill.
Van der Meer said trees will be planted to screen the slave cemetery from the state park system’s most popular golf course.
“Somebody’s family is buried there,” Van der Meer said. “We want that to be treated more respectfully.”
Heaton is looking for money to build a path from the house to the cemetery. The park master plan she developed in 1987 called for the path, as well as moving the 1930s golf course further away from the cemetery.
She got money a few years ago to move a fairway that went between the house and cemetery. But she hasn’t been able to move the other hole, or build the path.
“It’s always been a money issue,” Heaton said. “But I’m thrilled with Dr. Smith’s interest. This could be a real opportunity for us.”
Smith said he has been pleased by the response from state officials. He plans to work with them to make sure changes are made.
Smith said he wants Kentucky’s international image to be positive — but historically accurate. “For me, it’s about telling the rest of the story,” he said. “So far, we’ve only been telling half of it.”
Perhaps enough time has passed, enough progress has been made, that both black and white Kentuckians can begin coming to grips with slavery and a racist past.
“I’m excited about the future,” Smith said. “I’m excited about the cemetery, about the possibilities and ways of including African-American history in that story of My Old Kentucky Home.”
As a historian, Smith acknowledges the difficulty of accurately interpreting African-American history at My Old Kentucky Home. Little physical evidence remains. Records are sketchy, and much is based on oral tradition.
But, he notes, Federal Hill’s very association with Stephen Foster is based on oral tradition among the Rowans, who were the songwriter’s cousins. There’s no written evidence that Foster ever visited the mansion, much less set his song there.
“We know the slaves were there,” Smith said. “But that other fellow, the one they’ve got the statue to out in the garden, we’re not sure about him.”
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