Lexington: Robards’ Slave Headquarters

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Short Street headquarters of Robards’ slave operation.

Slavery was front and center on a recent walking tour of Lincoln’s Lexington presented by the Blue Grass Trust’s deTour program.  Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary (Todd) Lincoln, was a Lexington native and she and Lincoln spent some time here after they married.  This tour of the historic downtown included a stop on Short Street at a building that today houses condominiums, but in the mid-1800s was the headquarters of notorious slave trader Lewis Robards.

Lincoln’s brother-in-law, Levi Todd, lived across the street from the Robards’ buildings.   The Todd home was just one of several elegant homes on this block owned by prominent Lexington families.  Just a few blocks away on the grounds of the original Fayette County Courthouse is Cheapside, the largest of Kentucky’s slave markets.  Robards sold his slaves at Cheapside.

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Robards’ slave business encompassed several buildings on this block, including slave pens and a brothel :  one building was for holding slaves until sale–slave “pens”– and another building was for displaying “fancy girls”–basically a brothel featuring mulatto slaves.

New Orleans and Lexington, Kentucky, had active markets in “fancy girls,” beautiful young girls and women, often mulatto or quadroon, who were sold not as domestics but as concubines. They were presented at auction well dressed and coiffed, sometimes with jewelry. In the 1850s, beautiful teenage girls were valued at more than $1,500 (close to $30,000 in today’s dollars), which made them as “expensive” as prime male field hands. Buying a “fancy girl” was a status symbol for traders, gamblers, and saloon keepers.

US Slave blog at http://usslave.blogspot.com/2011/08/selling-fancy-girls.html

Slave Market, circa 1850-1860.

Slave Market, circa 1850-1860.

Present-day Cheapside is the site of the downtown farmers' market.

Present-day Cheapside is the site of the downtown farmers’ market.

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Slave Code booklet for Washington D.C., published in 1862.

Having inherited the slavery ideology of Virginia, from which the state had been formed, Kentucky in 1798 adopted a slave code that defined slaves as “chattel,” thereby denying them basic rights—including citizenship, education, legal marriages, and control over property and even their own bodies. Even though various groups of Kentuckians made attempts, based primarily on religious doctrine, to end slavery, the tremendous wealth and status offered by slavery lured many poor whites to seek their fortunes through the trafficking of slaves.

Kentucky and the Underground Railroad (KET/Kentucky Educational Television)

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2 thoughts on “Lexington: Robards’ Slave Headquarters

    1. It was a nice change to go on a tour where they spoke openly of Lexington’s slave history. More often it’s glossed over–they’d really prefer you not ask those hard questions.

      Like

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