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.
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.
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.”
But 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.