When the Civil War ended in April 1865, the status of Kentucky’s African–American slave population was unclear. Since Kentucky never technically seceded, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply. Federal authorities told African–Americans they were free; local and state officials maintained they were still enslaved. Kentucky’s federal commander, Major General John Palmer, issued orders to end slavery. "Palmer Passes" enabled African–Americans to search for family members in the state or move to the North. Therefore, despite poverty, disease, and a lack of education, African–Americans expressed their newfound freedom with mobility throughout the bluegrass state. According to one former slave: "Better a thousand fold liberty with poverty than plenty with slavery."
The road to freedom and equality would be long and challenging. Within the first five years after the war, the federal government passed amendments abolishing slavery, recognizing African–American citizenship rights, and granting African–American men the right to vote. Yet Kentucky officials rejected the opportunity to pass these rights. In 1865, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist African–Americans with the transition to freedom by providing food, clothing, and shelter. The Bureau, which eventually set up headquarters in Lexington, Louisville, and Paducah, employed representatives to facilitate employment opportunities and offer educational instruction. But, the Bureau’s agents faced extreme hostility in Kentucky.
The state’s leadership opposed Congress’s decision to pass a Civil Rights Act in 1875. This law outlawed racial discrimination in transportation, public accommodations and the selection of juries. By 1872, Kentucky African–Americans could testify in court, but this right paled in comparison to the many other difficulties encountered throughout the late nineteenth century.
African–Americans confronted segregation, discrimination, and racial violence on a daily basis. Schools, housing, libraries, cemeteries, hospitals, and public accommodations were separated by race. It was against the law for people to marry across racial lines. In 1892, the state legislature passed a law to separate railroad cars in Kentucky with a "substantial wooden partition."
Newspapers referred to African–American criminal suspects as a "colored brute" or "colored boy." Although African–American and white baseball teams did compete against each other, integrated teams faced societal opposition. For example, when Moses Fleetwood Walker traveled with his Toledo, Ohio baseball team to Louisville, his manager chose to not play him because of white resentment.
Racial hostility was rampant in Kentucky. African–Americans were beaten, whipped, lynched, and forced out of their communities. Sam Bascom was accused of arson even though "all of the evidence against him was circumstantial." He was taken from a jail cell in Owingsville and lynched in October 1872. Besides facing illegal executions, African–American homes and schools were burned by whites who wanted to keep them "in their place."
African–Americans were determined to make the best of their conditions. They did not passively accept their troubling circumstances. They held Emancipation Day celebrations and parades. In 1870, they successfully boycotted segregated streetcars in Louisville. In Paducah, African–Americans acquired guns to protect themselves against white violence. In Georgetown, they started fires to protest lynchings. With voting rights, African–Americans elected their own candidates to political office by the end of the century. In 1897, Edward W. Glass received enough votes to serve on the Hopkinsville city council, while James Allensworth was elected coroner. African–Americans organized conventions, drafted resolutions, petitions, and met with white leaders to push for equality. In April 1892, African–American schoolteacher Mary E. Britton penned a strong expression on behalf of African–American women against Kentucky’s Separate Coach Bill.
African–Americans pressed forward with tenacity, faith, and hard work. They sought land, education, and equality. Some purchased plots of land from whites and formed their own rural communities. They labored as maids, waiters, cooks, barbers and caterers. Others worked in stone quarries, lumber mills, and on hemp farms. African–Americans in Owensboro owned saloons and groceries by 1890. In Lexington, there were African–American clerks in The Kaufman Clothing Company. Bowling Green employed African–American letter carriers by 1891. By the first decade of the twentieth century they were employed in the coal mines of eastern Kentucky.
From 1865 to 1900, African–Americans faced extreme white hostility, but established churches, schools, fairs, organizations, and businesses. They revised, created, and sustained a culture and community that would strengthen them. African–American jockeys won Kentucky Derbys; African–American teachers, doctors, and lawyers graduated from Berea College, the State Normal School in Frankfort, and State University in Louisville. African–American women were major contributors to the growth of their churches and benevolent organizations. Clearly, the first and second generations born after slavery laid the foundation for the long road to equality.
Featured Author Dr. Gerald L. Smith