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.”

The amazing life of Lexington slave Lewis Hayden. (Part 2)

February 12, 2013

With his own debt of freedom repaid, Lewis Hayden could focus on helping others become free. The escaped slave from Lexington already had accomplished a lot by this time, as I wrote in last Wednesday’s column.

By the late 1840s, Hayden was a leader in Boston’s black community. His boarding house and clothing store were important stops on the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped slaves start new lives in the North.

The American Anti-Slavery Society hired Hayden in 1847 as an “agent” to travel throughout the North and speak about his experiences as a slave. He was sorely disappointed when the organization’s white leaders let him go after about six months, according to Lewis Hayden and the War Against Slavery, a 1999 book by Joel Strangis, a former administrator at Sayre School in Lexington.

Apparently, Hayden was not as effective a speaker as some of the society’s other agents, who included Frederick Douglass and William Wells Brown, another former Lexington slave, who would become America’s first successful black novelist.

The break might have been for the best. Hayden was growing impatient with the Anti-Slavery Society and pacifist leaders such as William Lloyd Garrison, publisher of The Liberator newspaper. They seemed to be all talk and no action. Circumstances would soon force Hayden into action.

The Compromise of 1850, Henry Clay’s attempt to avoid the inevitable Civil War, included a fugitive slave law. Among other things, the law made it a crime to help an escaped slave, and it forced federal officials to become slave-catchers.

The law sent shock waves through Boston’s black population. Hayden and most of the city’s 2,000 black residents were now in personal jeopardy, and they were determined to fight back.

After federal marshals arrested an escaped slave named Shadrach at a coffee house where he worked, Hayden and others snatched him from the courthouse and smuggled him out of Boston. President Millard Fillmore was outraged, and Clay denounced the incident on the floor of the Senate, asking “whether we shall have a government of white men or black men in the cities of this country.”

Hayden continued to help dozens of fugitive slaves, sometimes by force, and his fame grew.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the 1852 best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, interviewed Hayden and included his harrowing account of childhood slavery in Lexington in her 1853 follow-up book,The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. (Read the excerpt here.)

In 1858, Hayden met abolitionist John Brown, who spoke of his plans to incite an armed slave revolt. Hayden raised money for what would become Brown’s unsuccessful raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in October 1859.

When the Civil War finally came, Hayden had a friend in Massachusetts Gov. John Andrew. They had known each other for years, and Hayden had helped the lawyer get elected to the legislature in 1857.

Still, many eyebrows were raised when the Pilgrim State’s governor accepted an invitation to dine at Lewis and Harriet Hayden’s home on Thanksgiving 1862. It wasn’t just a social occasion: Hayden took the opportunity to urge Andrew to persuade President Abraham Lincoln to allow blacks to fight for the Union.

Once Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation took effect a few weeks later, Andrew formed the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Hayden was too old to serve, but he recruited troops for the unit, which had black enlisted men but white officers. The regiment’s story was told in the 1989 Academy Award-winning movie Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Matthew Broderick and Morgan Freeman.

After the war, Hayden promoted Freemasonry as a way for black men to help one another advance. And, in 1873, he was elected to a term in the Massachusetts legislature. (He was one of Massachusetts’ first state employees in 1858, when he got a job as a messenger in the secretary of state’s office.)

Hayden spent his last years on a goal he had worked 30 years to achieve. He wanted a monument on the Boston Common honoring Crispus Attucks, the only mixed-race man killed by British troops in the “Boston Massacre” of March 5, 1770, which helped spark the American Revolution.

Hayden had to settle for a monument honoring all five “massacre” victims. But he was on the platform when it was dedicated in 1888, with Attucks’ name at the top of the list. Hayden died the following year and is buried in Everett, Mass.

Candlelight tours at one of Kentucky’s grandest Old South mansions

December 11, 2012

Ward Hall, completed in 1857, is considered one of the nation’s finest Greek Revival-style mansions. The foundation that owns the mansion is beginning a fundraising campaign for $850,000 in exterior renovations. Photos by Tom Eblen


GEORGETOWN — Central Kentucky has many elegant homes built before the Civil War, but Ward Hall is in a class by itself.

Completed in 1857 for planter and horseman Junius R. Ward, this massive mansion commands a hillside on Frankfort Road a mile west of Georgetown. Architectural historians have described it as Kentucky’s finest home, one of the grandest Greek Revival houses outside the deep South and among the 20 or so best mid-19th century buildings left in America.

“The national experts are really more excited about what we have here than are many of the locals,” said David Stuart, a Scott County lawyer and president of the Ward Hall Preservation Foundation. “It’s amazing that we sit about 12 miles from downtown Lexington and so many people are unaware of Ward Hall.”

The mansion, at 1782 Frankfort Road, is open for tours only one weekend a month, but there will be Christmas candlelight tours from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sunday and Dec. 22 and 23. Admission is $5, free for children 15 and younger. (More information: (859) 396-4257,

Ward Hall was built by descendants of prominent Scott County pioneers who achieved fabulous wealth made possible by slavery.

Junius Ward (1802-1883) was the son of Gen. William and Sarah Ward. She was the sister of Richard M. Johnson, who was vice president under Martin Van Buren, 1837-41.

Junius Ward married Matilda Viley, whose family was instrumental in making Central Kentucky the center of Thoroughbred breeding and racing. Through the Viley family, Ward became a part-owner in the legendary race horse Lexington.

Ward acquired rich bottomland in Mississippi and became a wealthy planter. He built Ward Hall on 550 acres outside his hometown as a refuge from Mississippi’s summer heat. He had the money and taste to build the very best.

Measuring nearly 75 feet square and 40 feet high, Ward Hall has more than 12,000 square feet of space on four levels. It was built with an innovative plumbing system that collected rainwater from the roof.

Those last few summers before the Civil War changed everything, the Wards entertained the Bluegrass aristocracy in grand fashion. Parties were hosted by Matilda Ward and her niece, Sallie Ward, a famous Southern belle whose exploits — including four marriages and a much-publicized divorce — could have made the fictional Scarlett O’Hara blush.

After climbing 10 limestone steps past massive Corinthian columns, visitors would enter a 14-foot-wide hall with a 14-foot ceiling. They would be welcomed into a double parlor with Carrara marble mantels, walnut woodwork and Sheffield silver fixtures.

The silver chandeliers still hang from a distemper plaster ceiling which, after 155 years, retains its original coloring. A graceful elliptical staircase ascends from the center of the hall to huge second-floor bedrooms and a third-floor attic.

The Civil War ruined Ward financially, and his Kentucky mansion and its contents were sold at a bankruptcy auction in 1867. The home passed through several owners before the Susong family bought it and 156 acres in 1945.

The Susongs put the property up for sale in 2004, and a developer bought 116 acres.

Georgetown College stepped in to ensure that the mansion and 40 surrounding acres were preserved. A non-profit preservation foundation was created to buy the property for $957,000. The money came from federal and local government grants, plus $250,000 from developer Jim Barlow.

“The rare thing about the house is that it comes to us virtually intact,” Stuart said, noting how little was changed by various owners over a century and a half.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that Ward Hall is in desperate need of repair.

The Kentucky Heritage Council has approved an $850,000 plan to restore the exterior to prevent further damage from the elements. The foundation will begin a fundraising campaign for that money next year.

An additional $2 million or so will be needed to restore the mansion’s interior and upgrade infrastructure systems. Plans to rebuild the once-famous stable and restore the outbuildings and grounds will take another couple million.

The foundation’s long-term goal is to open the property as a community center and living history museum depicting Kentucky plantation life just before, during and after the Civil War. But it won’t be a sentimental treatment, Stuart said.

“We’re not going to back away from the black American experience,” he said, noting that the basement-level service areas are as intact as the grand upper floors. “This house and plantation would not have existed without the enslaved.”

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Built by slaves, sanctuary could have new future

February 29, 2012


One of Lexington’s most significant black-history landmarks would become a concert hall, a cultural center and a museum if a new non-profit foundation can raise several million dollars to buy, restore and operate it.

The First African Foundation has reached a tentative agreement with Central Christian Church to buy the former First African Baptist Church building at the corner of Short and Deweese streets. A final agreement must be approved by Central Christian’s leaders and congregation, said James Hodge, a church trustee. He declined to disclose the purchase price or terms.

William Thomas, a Lexington native who moved back in 2008 after retiring as music department chair at the prestigious Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts, said he was inspired to organize the effort after reading about the building’s amazing history two years ago.

The Italianate-style sanctuary, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is a handsome building. What makes it amazing is that most of the people who built and paid for it in the 1850s were slaves.

First African Baptist Church and Historic Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church trace their roots to Peter Durrett, a slave who in 1790 started the first black church west of the Allegheny Mountains. Durrett died in 1823 and was succeeded by London Ferrill, a slave who gained his freedom and was widely respected by blacks and whites alike.

In 1833, Ferrill became a local hero when he risked his life to minister to victims of a cholera epidemic that killed 500 of Lexington’s 7,000 residents. That same year, he moved his congregation to the corner of Short and Deweese. Construction of the present building began about 1850. Ferrill died in 1854, and his funeral procession attracted 5,000 mourners. The sanctuary was completed in 1856.

Ferrill was a powerful preacher who baptized thousands. Because slave families were often split up by sale, many walked miles each Sunday to attend services at First African Church — and have their only opportunity to see each other.

First African Baptist Church added a Tudor-style addition and a columned portico on the sanctuary in 1926. The congregation moved to Price Road in 1987 and sold its historic building to Central Christian. A child-care center now in the building would be relocated if the sale is approved, Hodge said.

Architect Gregory Fitzsimons, who developed a renovation plan for the foundation, said the building is in good condition. Still, it would take about $4 million buy, renovate and enlarge the building for the foundation’s proposed uses. Thomas also wants to raise several million more dollars to operate and endow the building and programs.

The old sanctuary, now used as a gymnasium, would become a 400-seat concert hall. Thomas would like the proposed concert hall to host local musicians and visiting ensembles that highlight African-American music. One such group is the American Spiritual Ensemble, a Lexington-based international touring company founded by Everett McCorvey, director of the University of Kentucky’s Opera Theatre program.

“It’s something we would certainly consider,” McCorvey said. “I was very impressed with the potential of what that facility could become. The church has a wonderful history. It’s certainly worth preserving.”

Thomas, who taught at Phillips Andover for 36 years, spent three years as artistic director of Project STEP, a classical music academy for gifted minority students in Boston run by the Boston Symphony and the New England Conservatory of Music. Thomas would like to start a similar program here.

Yvonne Giles, who started the Isaac Scott Hathaway museum of Kentucky black history, is on the foundation’s board. The building could eventually house that collection and host a variety of cultural programs, Thomas said.

The 10-member board includes Dan Rowland, a UK history professor; Lisa Higgins-Hord, UK’s vice president of community engagement; Urban County Councilman Chris Ford and architect Van Meter Pettit.

First African Baptist Church leaders support the project, and several were among about 50 people who attended a fund-raising reception Saturday at a home near Nicholasville. The event included a string quartet that played classical music by black composer William Grant Still.

“Fiscally, we’re in tough shoes, but this building is a national treasure,” Thomas said of the foundation’s ambitious fund-raising goal. “To know that folks in bondage committed their resources, which were so limited, to build such a remarkable structure inspires us to do great things with it.”

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Lexington slave trade flourished before Civil War

January 31, 2012

A century and a half ago, the Civil War began to reach Kentucky and bring an end to one of Lexington’s most thriving businesses: the sale of people.

Slave labor built the prosperous hemp and tobacco plantations and stock farms of the antebellum Bluegrass. Whites also owned black slaves to cook their food, clean their homes and care for their children.

As Black History Month begins, it is worth noting that from the 1820s until the Civil War, Lexington was one of America’s largest slave markets. Geography, demography and economics “put Lexington right in the center of this activity,” said Gerald Smith, a University of Kentucky history professor.

By the 1820s, Virginia, Maryland and Central Kentucky had a surplus of slaves just as the Deep South’s expanding cotton, rice and sugar plantations needed more labor. Much of that surplus ended up in Lexington to literally be “sold down the river.” Listen to the words of the state song,My Old Kentucky Home; that is their story.

When the Civil War began, Lexington had more than 10,000 slaves — almost half the total population — and about 1,700 slave owners. Still, many slave owners looked down on slave traders as cruel beasts — perhaps not wanting to acknowledge the full picture of their own “peculiar institution.”

Some sales were conducted privately at the several slave jails along Short Street. The largest of those jails were Megowan’s at Short Street and Limestone, Pullum’s on Broadway just north of Short, and Robards’ on Short between Broadway and Bruce Street.

But many slaves were sold at public auction at Cheapside. The auction block was on the southwest corner of the Fayette County courthouse. On the northeast corner was the slave whipping post — a locust log 10 feet tall and a foot in diameter. It was installed in 1826, and when it wore out in the 1840s, it was replaced by a nearby poplar tree.

“It was an embarrassment for many Lexingtonians to have this slave trading going on downtown,” Smith said. “It didn’t conform with the cosmopolitan image they wanted to cultivate.”

When future President Abraham Lincoln visited his wife’s family in Lexington for three weeks in the fall of 1847, five slaves were sold at Cheapside to settle a judgment that her father, Robert Todd, had won against their owner, John F. Leavy, according to William Townsend’s book,Lincoln and the Bluegrass.

Several controversial laws tried to prohibit traders from bringing slaves to Kentucky from other states to be sold. An 1833 law, one of the toughest of any slave state, was widely ignored. But after a pro-slavery state constitution was adopted in 1849, Kentucky’s slave trade flourished. More than 15 percent of Kentucky slaves were sold south from 1850 to 1860.

Smith said that, more than any slave-trading city except New Orleans, Lexington was known for its “fancy girls” — light-skinned, mixed-race young women who were sold into sexual slavery. The best-known dealer was Lewis Robards, who kept his “choice stock” in parlors above his Short Street office.

Not all of these deals were conducted behind closed doors. The most infamous case involved a beautiful young woman named Eliza — said to be just 1⁄64 black — who was sold at Cheapside in May 1843 to satisfy the debts of her deceased master and father.

Abolitionist accounts of the sale tell of a hard-hearted auctioneer who exposed Eliza’s breasts and thighs to encourage bidders, much to the horror of the assembled crowd. The bidding came down to a Frenchman and the Rev. Calvin Fairbanks, who had come to Lexington for the purpose of buying Eliza and setting her free. Fairbanks won with a bid of $1,485.

Without the Civil War, who knows when Lexington’s trade in black men, women and children might have ended? Most whites 150 years ago were content to look the other way — unless slavery’s victims looked too much like them.

“Several of these fancy girls, if you didn’t know any better, you would have thought they were white,” Smith said, adding that Eliza’s story added steam to the abolitionist movement. “It was as though a white woman was on display, and people were not going to stand for that.”

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Walk down Short Street is long on Lexington history

December 24, 2011

The street is named Short, but it is long on Lexington history.

I have been thinking about how this milelong street, which runs parallel to Main Street through downtown, ties together so many aspects of Lexington’s colorful and checkered past. I quickly came up with a dozen examples.

When I mentioned it to Jamie Millard, director of the Lexington History Museum, he quickly offered a dozen more. (The history museum, by the way, is on Short Street, in the old Fayette County Court House. It is worth a visit. More information:

Maybe you will have a spare hour during the holidays, some nice weather and an urge to get out of the house for a walk. Clip this column and take a tour with me down Short Street.

Start on the west side, where Short Street begins at Newtown Pike. But first look behind you at the statue atop the 120-foot column rising out of Lexington Cemetery. It marks the grave of Lexington’s most famous citizen, early 19th-century statesman Henry Clay.

As you begin walking along Short through Lexington’s first suburb, you will see many homes Henry Clay would have seen. To your right, on the corner just across Old Georgetown Street, is the former home of Billy Klair, a colorful political boss in the early 1900s.

If you look beyond adjacent Klair Alley, you will see a gas station, the site of Belle Brezing’s childhood home. Brezing grew up to run a famous house of prostitution and is thought to have inspired the Belle Watling character in Gone With the Wind.

At Jefferson Street, you enter Lexington’s 1791 city limits. The next long block toward Broadway is filled with history. On your right, where First Baptist Church now stands, was the city’s original graveyard. It filled up quickly during the 1833 cholera epidemic.

William “King” Solomon, an alcoholic vagrant, became a local hero during that epidemic, risking his life to bury hundreds. After he died in 1854, the community saw to it that he was buried in Lexington Cemetery with an impressive monument. When you get home, search the Internet and read James Lane Allen’s fascinating 1891 story, King Solomon of Kentucky.

Farther along Short Street, you will pass two old homes on your left with a historical marker between them. They replaced two older ones where Mary Todd Lincoln was born in 1818 and where her grandmother, Elizabeth Parker, lived next door. (The future first lady moved to what is now the Mary Todd Lincoln House museum on Main Street when she was 14.)

When Abraham Lincoln visited his wife’s family in 1849, he got perhaps his most close-up view of the evil institution he would later take the lead in abolishing. There were slave jails across the street from the Todd and Parker homes and to their side facing Broadway. That side property is now occupied by three historic buildings: St. Paul Catholic Church, Sts. Peter & Paul School and Lexington Opera House.

The Short Street jail was Lexington’s most notorious because, from 1849 to 1856, it is where slave trader Lewis Robards kept what he called his “choice stock” — young mixed-race women he sold into sexual slavery.

In the block past Broadway, you will see the soon-to-close Metropol restaurant. It is housed in Lexington’s oldest surviving post office building, circa 1825. When you come to Mill Street, look to your right. The left side of Mill housed the shop of the great silversmith Asa Blanchard. Further on was the office of Cassius M. Clay’s 1840s abolitionist newspaper, The True American. It was an unpopular publication in slave-holding Lexington, so Clay guarded the door with a cannon.

The right side of Mill has the remaining half of a building that was a confectionery and ballroom operated by Mathurin Giron. The building now houses Silks Lounge. Giron’s upstairs ballroom played host to Lexington’s most prominent visitors in the early 1800s, including President James Monroe and the Marquis de Lafayette.

Cheapside was for many years the center of Lexington commerce, including outdoor slave auctions. Mary Todd Lincoln’s father had a store where Bluegrass Tavern is now. The old courthouse on the public square was Lexington’s fourth. Before that, in the 1780s, there was a log school, where the teacher was once attacked by a wildcat.

You might be tired of walking by now, but keep going for a few more blocks. You will come to the Deweese Street intersection, once the commercial hub of black Lexington. There you will find one of the city’s least-known historic buildings.

Now Central Christian Church’s child-care center, it was built in 1856 to house First African Baptist Church. It is an interesting piece of Italianate architecture, but what is most remarkable is that it was financed and built by slaves and free blacks.

The building was something of a monument to the church’s longtime minister, London Ferrill, who died two years before its completion. Under his leadership, the congregation grew to become Kentucky’s largest, black or white.

Ferrill was widely respected by both races. His funeral procession in 1854 was said to have been the largest Lexington had ever seen, save for one — that of Henry Clay two years earlier.

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Bourbon County tour house both glorious, notorious

September 27, 2011

PARIS — Every house has a story, but few have one as glorious and notorious as The Grange — from its opulent architecture to the dungeon in the cellar.

Owners Phil and Lillie Crowley were living in Lexington in 2003 when a Realtor told them The Grange was for sale. At first, it was beyond their means. But they couldn’t stop thinking about it.

“I walked in here and dropped my jaw; then the next day Phil came to see it and dropped his jaw,” said Lillie Crowley, a former math professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

“I thought it was spectacularly beautiful,” said Phil Crowley, a biologist and ecologist at the University of Kentucky. “And the history was fascinating — it wasn’t all good, but it was fascinating.”

The Crowleys will open The Grange for a public tour Sunday to benefit the preservation group Historic Paris-Bourbon County.

Edward Stone began building the home that he called Oakland in 1800 on land his father received for Revolutionary War service. Construction took nearly 20 years, and Stone spared no expense. One of his professions was builder, and he apparently wanted to advertise his workmanship.

The Grange is considered one of Kentucky’s finest Federal-style homes. The five-bay front façade is flanked by pavilions with elaborate Palladian windows set in gently curved brick. The main floor has 14-foot ceilings and is trimmed with lavish woodwork and mantles. A leaded-glass fanlight and sidelights around the front door illuminate the main hall’s grand staircase.

But Stone was better known for his other profession: slave trader. Even many slave owners of that era looked down on slave traders because of their cruel methods. Few were more infamous than Stone, who might have been the inspiration for Mr. Haley, the unscrupulous slave trader in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s influential 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Stone marched long lines of chained men and women nearly 40 miles to Maysville, where he literally “sold them down the river” to Deep South cotton plantations. He also kept slaves chained to the walls of a dungeon beneath The Grange’s elegant front hall.

Manacles were removed from the walls and bars from a small window just a few years ago, Crowley said as he took me down to see the dungeon. All that remains of the room’s evil past are iron hinge posts for what must have been a heavy door.

Stone’s business eventually caught up with him. On a trip down the Ohio River in 1826, some of the 77 slaves he was taking to New Orleans overpowered and killed him near Owensboro.

Oakland was sold in 1832 to Hugh Brent, who renamed it Brentwood and left doodles on the walls of an upstairs bedroom for the Crowleys to find more than 170 years later, when they removed several layers of wallpaper.

The mansion, renamed The Grange about 1900, would have 11 more owners before the Crowleys bought it and the surrounding 33 acres.

“We’ve really tried to maintain the historic integrity of the architecture and still make the place livable,” Phil Crowley said of the 4,600-square-foot house, which didn’t get indoor plumbing until 1906. “Heating and cooling have been an issue, but our new geothermal system has made a big difference.”

Restoring and furnishing The Grange has become an expensive hobby.

“I needed a new car, and I got this instead,” Lillie Crowley said, pointing to a huge, circa 1800 English mahogany breakfront cabinet they bought for the dining room. A massive antique bed in the guest room came with the house — probably because it was too big to move.

The most challenging project has been remodeling the kitchen. It is in the home’s oldest wing, and contractor Jim Hodsdon found a shriveled shoe while gutting a former sleeping loft there. The shoe probably belonged to Stone.

The Crowleys have collected a pile of artifacts during renovation, from pieces of pottery to the bars from the dungeon window. Thankfully, though, they haven’t encountered any ghosts of people who were once chained below their front hall.

“Talk about a place with a rotten soul,” Phil Crowley said. “It’s hard to wrap your head around.”

If you go

Tour of The Grange

When: 2-5 p.m. Oct. 2.

Where: 1366 Millersburg Rd. (U.S. 68)

Tickets: $15, $10 for Historic Paris-Bourbon County members. No reservations needed.

Learn more: (859) 987-7274

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How to avoid contributing to modern slavery

February 23, 2011

GEORGETOWN — Slavery is a hot topic at Georgetown College, and it is not a history lesson.

A group of faculty and students is spreading the word that modern slavery can be an ingredient in the chocolate we eat and the coffee we drink. It can be found around the world — and, sometimes, around the corner.

Leaders at the Baptist-affiliated college say it is an issue of economics and faith, and the cause has captured students’ attention like few they have seen before.

The college’s Student Abolitionist Movement will sponsor a talk at 7 p.m. Monday by Dave Batstone, president of Not For Sale, a non-profit group that raises awareness of modern slavery. At 7 p.m. March 8, there is a talk by Soreyda Benedit Begley, a Lexington fashion designer who began her career at age 14, sewing garments in a sweatshop in her native Honduras. Both events at John Hill Chapel are free.

Last week, Dr. Jeffrey Barrows, a physician, spoke about a form of slavery that is shockingly close to home: child sex trafficking. The founder of Gracehaven ministry said that at least 100,000 American children are forced into the sex trade each year, including some his Columbus, Ohio, shelter gets from Central Kentucky. One way to stop it, he said, is to teach medical professionals, educators and social workers to look for the signs of abuse, because victims are often too ashamed to seek help.

These events are part of a yearlong series of Georgetown College programs on modern slavery. Six faculty members are working the subject into course curricula in several departments. Bryan Langlands, the campus minister, also is involved.

“This is not just something for liberal activists to get huffy about,” Langlands said. “It has very literal implications for our faith as Christians.”

This effort began about six years ago, when Regan Lookadoo, an associate professor of psychology, was teaching a course on the psychology of slavery. The more the discussions moved from historic to modern bondage, she said, the more she researched the subject.

About the same time, Alison Jackson Tabor, an assistant professor of education, was reflecting on her experiences studying in Ghana, West Africa, a decade ago.

“During that time, I saw some things I didn’t understand,” she said, such as why some children never went to school, because they worked for low wages on banana plantations.

“It wasn’t until I got back to the states that I began connecting some of the dots between labor issues and consumer choices,” she said.

Their passion for the issue has attracted many others. While slavery is a complex global issue, they say, individuals can make a difference.

Coffee, chocolate, cotton, fruit, tea, sugar, rice, wine, cell phones and gold are among the most common consumer goods sometimes produced overseas by people who are paid very low wages and exposed to hazardous chemicals. Child labor is sometimes used to make goods such as soccer balls and carpets.

The best thing consumers can do, the professors say, is to buy products labeled “fair trade.” Fairtrade International, a non-profit organization, certifies producers to ensure that workers are paid and treated fairly, and not exposed to dangerous working conditions.

“There’s a lot to be said for contacting the managers of stores where you shop and asking them to carry fair-trade products,” Lookadoo said. “A lot of them are willing to do it if you just ask. And that filters up. Companies will change the way they do business when they know there’s a consumer demand for it.”

The next best thing to fair-trade food is certified organic. It minimizes the chance that workers — and you — will be exposed to hazardous chemicals, Lookadoo said.

They acknowledge that fair trade and organic products often cost a little more, but there are other ways to economize. Besides, they say, this is about more than money.

“A lot of this is about helping people to make connections between our ethical values and the things we buy,” said Langlands, the campus minister. “It’s making people realize that we’re addicted to cheap stuff, and there are moral consequences to that.”

Rediscovering slavery at My Old Kentucky Home

August 2, 2009

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.”

Click on each photo to enlarge

Jefferson Davis’ life still holds lessons

May 31, 2008

He was born in a log cabin in Kentucky, grew up to be president and led his nation through a bitter Civil War.

No, not Abraham Lincoln.

The other guy: Jefferson Davis.

The 200th birthday of the only president of the Confederate States of America is Tuesday, and it will pass with little notice.

A few modest ceremonies and a historians’ symposium are planned this month, and there will be a festival next weekend at Davis’ hometown of Fairview in Todd County. That’s where a 351-foot concrete obelisk was built to his memory in the early 1900s by old men of the Lost Cause.

The commemorations are in stark contrast to the two-year national celebration that began in February to mark the bicentennial of Lincoln, who was born eight months later and 125 miles away, near Hodgenville in LaRue County.

Lincoln achieved mythic status after he died a martyr as the Civil War was ending. In the pantheon of American heroes, he’s right up there with George Washington.

Davis, on the other hand, is a man few now want to acknowledge, much less celebrate.

Before the Civil War, few would have predicted their fates.

Lincoln was homely and awkward. He educated himself while working as a frontier store clerk. His military career was modest. He married well by Lexington standards, but the Todds had little influence outside the Bluegrass.

After holding small political jobs, practicing law and serving in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln was elected to a single two-year term in Congress. He won the presidency in 1860 with not quite 40 percent of the vote in a four-way race that included John C. Breckinridge of Lexington. Lincoln was openly mocked, even by some in his own government. His emancipation of slaves was not a popular move.

Davis, on the other hand, was the handsome ideal of Southern manhood. He left Kentucky at an early age, as Lincoln did, but returned as the only Protestant pupil at a good Catholic school in Springfield. He studied at Transylvania, then one of the nation’s best colleges, before leaving Lexington to attend West Point.

He served twice in the military with distinction and married the daughter of his commander, the future President Zachary Taylor. She died of malaria three months after the wedding. He married well a second time, too, securing a comfortable place in Mississippi’s plantation aristocracy. He represented Mississippi in the U.S. House, served as secretary of war and was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Davis opposed secession, but when Mississippi left the union, he resigned his Senate seat and a month later was elected president of the Confederacy.

“In some ways, the elevation of Lincoln over Davis isn’t quite fair,” said Brian Dirck, a history professor at Anderson University in Indiana and author of Lincoln and Davis: Imagining America, 1809-1865.

“Jefferson Davis was a talented man; before 1860, most people would have said he was more talented than Abraham Lincoln,” he said. “There are many people who felt (Davis) would have made a good president of the United States before the war.”

Davis did a remarkable job of holding together a confederacy founded on the principle that states’ rights supersede those of a central government. Throughout the war, he was constantly sparring with state courts and legislatures.

“I doubt anyone else could have done a better job, given the circumstances,” Dirck said.

“But here’s the thing: He lost. And by that I mean not only did he lose the war, he lost the battle for the Confederacy’s legacy, as well. After the war, he told anybody who would listen that the Confederacy was not about defending slavery, but rather the Constitution and states’ rights. He wrote a book to that effect – a really long, tedious book, I might add – and for a while people believed him.”

The Confederacy, of course, was all about slavery; the South’s wealth depended on it. Jefferson Davis led the fight for slavery and ended up as the poster boy for the most evil social institution in American history.

Davis’ view that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God … it is sanctioned in the Bible” was conventional wisdom in the South of his day, where slavery had existed for 250 years. People used Scripture then to defend slavery the way others would use it later to deny equal rights to women and gay people.

The United States is great because it is a nation of values, and high on that list of values is equal rights. We really believe that stuff about all people being created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Of course, our entire history has involved struggles to make those words reality. In many ways, we’re still working on it.

I’ve always been fascinated by historic figures such as Jefferson Davis, the man who stood for all of the popular things and is now pitied for it.

And it makes me wonder: When people look back on us a generation or a century or two from now, who will be our Jefferson Davises? Whom will people revere, and whom will they pity?