Constantly Startled by Southern History

Waveland Slave Marker, Lexington

Waveland Slave Marker, Lexington

The very “matter-of-factness” of the history of slavery in Kentucky constantly startles me.  I learned about American history just like every other school kid in the U.S. and took the requisite U.S. History courses in college. But I grew up in Kansas, which has a very different history.  We were taught Kansas history in 5th grade; I assume the schools here are required to teach a comparable class in Kentucky history.

Kansas was never a “slave state.”  My ancestors were abolitionists who moved to Kansas during the Territorial years to help make sure it didn’t enter the Union as a slave state like neighboring Missouri. This was during the period just before the Civil War when it was known as “Bleeding Kansas” because of the violence. It was already a war situation in that region before the Civil War ever started.

Kitchen and slave quarters, Waveland

Kitchen and slave quarters, Waveland

Kentucky did not secede from the Union during the Civil War, but it was a slave-holding southern state. I’ve been doing a lot of exploring now that I live in Kentucky, Lexington specifically.

Waveland State Historic Site

One of the first places I visited was the Waveland Plantation Historic Site. The photo of the monument was taken there. On one side is elaborate carving and a tribute to the family, along with detailed information about each family member through the generations. On the much starker reverse side is brief, unadorned information about the slaves of Waveland, “The Bryan Family Slaves…Their Labor Made Waveland Possible.” And this from the Waveland brochure: “If you had to be a 19th century slave in Lexington, a fate nobody would want, working for Joseph and Margaret Bryan at their Waveland plantation might have been one of the least awful possibilities.”

WavelandBut you don’t even have to visit one of the historic slave plantations to be confronted with the fact of slavery. Yesterday I went to the local farmers’ market downtown, which I discovered is on the location of the Cheapside slave auction block. Lexington was the capital of Kentucky’s slave trade during the antebellum years. Since Lexington was in the middle of the state and quite a distance from the Ohio River, it was not easy for slaves to escape. Because of that it became the preferred location to exchange slaves–men, women and children–through auction.

Lexington is also a city of many, many named “alleys” or “alys,” such as Tucker Alley, McCaw Alley, Elsmere Alley, Morton Aly…. I had wondered about those until my daughter told me that the present-day “Alley” streets were where the slave quarters for the grand homes had been until after the Civil War. After the Civil War, those areas were converted to hemp production (called ropewalks). Now they are narrow streets, scattered throughout the historic downtown area.

December, 2014

9 thoughts on “Constantly Startled by Southern History

  1. It is interesting that the former enslaved quarters are in present day called ‘alleys’ or ‘alys.’ Is it because of the narrow space? That makes it easy to locate for anyone interested in looking.

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    1. I wish I could find more about that piece of history, but what you say sounds plausible. Ropewalks, in general, are described as “long straight narrow lanes.”

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      1. …and Lexington was the leader in hemp production in Kentucky, so they needed a lot of ropewalks.. Here is more background info. from a historical marker in Lexington: “In the early 1840s the county had 63 ropewalks; they were long, narrow sheds for the spiral winding of hemp fibers. In 1871, 2,000 tons of fiber were harvested, 1/3 of yield for entire state in that year. First crop grown, 1775. From 1840 to 1860, Ky.’s production largest in U.S. Peak in 1850 was 40,000 tons, with value of $5,000,000. Scores of factories made twine, rope, gunny sacks, bags for cotton picking and marketing. State’s largest cash crop until 1915. Market lost to imported jute, freed of tariff. As war measure, hemp grown again during World War II.”

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      2. It would be an interesting study to follow but it seem from your account of the ropewalk in association with the hemp shows another use for the narrow space.

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  2. As I read this, of course, images of all the stories of slavery I’ve ever read, or seen on screen, come back. Then I’m haunted by the fact that slaves are employed right here in my city, and in cities across the country. Hidden from view, locked in ordinary houses on ordinary streets. Now and then someone discovers one of the locations and the police raid and round up the slaves with the perps. We never hear what happens to them, almost all foreign nationals lured here by promises of jobs and a bright future, then forced into labor at nail salons or boutique dress-making factories by day and prostitution by night. I heard a story on NPR not long ago that said there are more people in slavery in the world today than at any point in human history.

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