The Slave Dwelling Project
A little over a week ago I received a phone call from my dad. He had read an article in the newspaper about special events that were taking place the coming weekend, and he knew I would be interested in participating. He had read that four historic sites in Louisville were holding events to raise awareness of slavery, more accurately, to shift the narrative of the history of slavery in Kentucky. The four historic sites were Locust Grove (which I had visited a few weeks before, (read my blog post here)), Farmington, Riverside, the Farnsley-Moreman Landing (I had visited both locations in the past), and Oxmoor Farm.
Immediately, I was intrigued with Oxmoor Farm. I had heard many times about the property and knew that it was still privately owned. I quickly looked them up on the internet and learned that they were having tours of the home on Friday evening, followed by a Campfire Conversation with the founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, Joe McGill. The campfire would take place just outside the slave-quarters still standing on the property. I was sold and grabbed my ticket right then and there!
Honestly, I really didn’t know what to expect that evening, other than the opportunity to tour the home and see the property that had been closed to the public for so many years. What I experienced was like nothing I had experienced before. In fact, it shifted the narrative for me, just as it was intended to do. And so, here I am sharing my expirences with you. It was enlightening and something I can not let pass by. Before I jump into my experience that evening, let’s cover the history behind the event.
The Origins of Slavery
While the exact date of the beginning of slavery can not be determined, it is believed by historians that slavery dates back to the Ancient World, beginning in Mesopotamia around 2200 B.C. China and India are believed to have adopted slavery much later, around 221 B.C.
“Sumer or Sumeria is still thought to be the birthplace of slavery, which grew out of Sumer into Greece and other parts of ancient Mesopotamia.”
According to Restavek Freedom, slavery usually came about as a “result of debt, birth into a slave family, child abandonment, war, or as a punishment for crime.”
In the Middle Ages (500 A.D. – 1500 A.D.), raiding and conquering other regions became the focus of attention. The people of the conquered lands were transported over many miles to become slaves for the captors.
In the Medieval Times of England, the slave trade began. King Charlemagne is known for taking slaves and selling them to the highest bidders, and European slaves became very popular among Muslims. Vikings took enslaved people across Europe. Spain and Portugal were in constant Holy Wars between Christians and Muslims resulting in many women and children being taken into slavery.
In China, during the Medieval Times, royals from the Tang Dynasty bought many European and Jewish enslaved people. Soldiers and pirates raided Korea, Turkey, Persia, Indonesia, and indigenous Aboriginal tribes, taking countless people as slaves.
Enslaved people during this time period were considered property and had no personal freedoms. They were required to do the work ordered by owners, and they were not allowed to marry without the owner’s consent.
Coming to Colonial America
The first enslaved people were brought to Colonial America in 1619 when twenty men were brought from Africa to Jamestown, Virginia. Indentured servants had arrived prior to 1619. By the late 1600s, the slave trade was strong due to colonists acquiring enslaved people in large numbers. It is believed this was due to a lack of indentured servants coming to the colonies.
Slavery in the Americas
Not only had slavery been introduced in Colonial America, but it had also taken hold in the Caribbean, Spanish America, and Brazil. The majority of African enslaved were taken to the Caribbean Islands to produce coffee and sugar on plantations. In Spanish America and Brazil, enslaved people were used for both field and household work.
United States from 1776 On
The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, creating the United States of America. The Declaration of Independence did just that, it declared independence. The Constitution, which was ratified in 1788, set up our nation’s government. That document was the birth of our nation and should have addressed slavery for our infant country. Our Founding Fathers, however, didn’t address it, which set the country on a path toward a Civil War.
Why didn’t the Founding Fathers address slavery? On the topic of slavery, the United States was already a nation divided, and we had just become a nation. According to History.com, Thomas Jefferson had, “drafted a 168-word passage that condemned slavery as one of the many evils foisted upon the colonies by the British crown,” to be included in the Declaration of Independence, but Congress scratched it from the final draft. I believe the Founding Fathers were afraid the Constitution would never be ratified if slavery were addressed. I believe they were driven to create a nation, rather than tear it apart before it even had a chance.
While some things will never be known for sure, there are a few things we do know that can help us understand our Founding Fathers’ motivation. You see, in 1776, some organizations and newly formed states were already working to end slavery, while others were benefiting from it, and not all too eager to end it. The Constitution wouldn’t be written and ratified for another twelve years!
Divided Views of Slavery
1776: In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers, forbids its members from holding slaves. ALSO, Delaware prohibits the importation of African slaves.
1777: Vermont is the first of the thirteen colonies to abolish slavery and enfranchise all adult males. ALSO, New York enfranchises all free propertied men regardless of color or prior servitude.
1778: Rhode Island forbids the removal of slaves from the state. ALSO, Virginia prohibits the importation of slaves.
1780: Delaware makes it illegal to enslave imported Africans. ALSO, Pennsylvania begins gradual emancipation, and A freedom clause in the Massachusetts constitution is interpreted as an abolishment of slavery. Massachusetts enfranchises all men regardless of race.
1790: Congress denies naturalization to anyone who is not a free white. ALSO, Congress advocates the expansion of slavery into the Southwest.
1792: Congress excludes blacks from military service.
1793: The First Fugitive Slave Law is passed, allowing slave owners to cross state lines in the pursuit of fugitives and making it a penal offense to abet runaway slaves.
1800: South Carolina forbids blacks from holding religious meetings at night. ALSO, Congress prohibits U.S. citizens from exporting slaves.
1803: South Carolina opens a new port to accommodate the importation of slaves from Africa. ALSO, Ohio is admitted to the Union as a free state.
Source: “Slavery and the Making of America” / To read more click here.
Kentucky, Slavery, and the Civil War
Slavery was introduced to Kentucky long before it was a state. Settlers brought their slaves with them from other states to help “tame the west.” Upon becoming a state in 1792, Kentucky legalized slavery under Article IX of its’ constitution.
According to the Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, “there were 11,830 slaves and 114 free blacks” in 1790 Kentucky. By 1860, there were 225,483 enslaved people in Kentucky making up 19.5% of the population.
There were opponents to slavery in Kentucky from the very beginning as well, but these opponents were not able to accomplish much when it came to ending slavery.
For these reasons, Kentucky became a neutral state at the beginning of the Civil War. Once Kentucky joined the fight, Kentuckians were fighting for the preservation of the Union, not the destruction of slavery. The people of Kentucky believed that the decision of slavery should be with the states, not with the federal government.
When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1862, many Kentucky soldiers were furious. If they had known a year earlier that Lincoln was going to sign such a document, they would have joined the Confederate Army instead. In March of 1863, the Kentucky Legislature passed a law that enslaved any black entering the state claiming freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation.
As the war progressed, the need for soldiers increased. The military turned to enslaved men to help with the war. To promote enlistment, an act was passed in March of 1865 that freed the wife and children of any black that enlisted. By the end of the war, “the army was more interested in enlisting blacks in order to free them than in obtaining soldiers.” [Slavery in Kentucky: A Civil War Casualty] Kentucky enlisted as many black men in the Union as it did white men in the Confederacy.
The war came to an end in April 1865 when General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, and slavery officially ended on December 18, 1865, when the 13th Amendment was adopted. Kentucky did not accept the amendment easily, however. In January of 1866, the Kentucky Legislature rejected the ratification of the amendment in a vote of 30 to 57. It was simply a gesture of defiance. Slavery in Kentucky had come to an end.
Addressing Slavery Today
Let’s be honest, the true story of slavery in the U.S. has largely been hidden. It is a time in our country’s history that the majority of Americans don’t feel comfortable discussing, so it’s been swept under the rug, so to speak. Today, the foundations that care for and preserve our historic homes are trying their best to change that and tell a truer story of our history. Why? Because the enslaved people were just that, people. People that have largely been erased from our nation’s history, people that did not have a voice, people that need to be remembered.
I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning of my evening at Oxmoor Farm.
An Evening to Remember
When I arrived on the property, I drove down a long drive lined with trees on both sides. I was already in awe with a feeling of southern charm, then the home came into view directly infront of my car. It was jaw dropping in size, architecture, and history. Again, I had heard about the farm for years, but had never seen any photos to know what to expect. I parked my car, checked in, and strolled around the property a bit, taking exterior photos of the home as I waited for the event to begin.
Then, I walked over to the slave cabins truly surprised to find them made of brick and stone. Like a bolt of lightning, I realized that the reason those buildings were still standing was because of that stone and brick.
When I hear “slave cabins” I automatically think of log cabins, as that was typical for Kentucky. Because that was typical, slave cabins have all largely disappeared; lost to time, weather, and termites, and most likely no one found them important enough to save. There are very few “original” slave dwellings still standing in the US today. The ones I have had the opportunity to see were not in Kentucky. Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage Plantation in Tennessee has 3 log cabins still standing that I was fortunate enough to walk through a few years ago. This past summer, while visiting Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, SC, my family and I were able to see the slave cabins on that property. Here I was standing in front of the only orginial slave dwellings I had ever seen in Kentucky, at least that I could remember. That in-and-of itself was moving, and then I stepped into the one cabin that was open. It was about the size of my bedroom, with one window, a dirt floor, and a fireplace. I can’t put into words the feelings that came over me at that moment. My heart sank. It hurt for the people that lived there so many years ago. It truly stopped me in my tracks, especially when I turned in the doorway to face outward and across the lawn was the Oxmoor Farm home. I can’t begin to fathom what the enslaved thought each day they walked out of their tiny brick dwellings to look at the mansion across the yard. I just can’t.
In my somber reflection, I joined the others who had come for the evening. We took our tour of the Oxmoor Farm home (photos and separate history blog post up next) before the sun went down and returned to a campfire ready for our Campfire Conversation.
Shifting the Narrative with The Slave Dwelling Project
Joe McGill, founder of The Slave Dwelling Project, introduced himself and told us a little about his mission. He then asked each one of us to introduce ourselves and explain our hopes for the evening. Once we all introduced ourselves, he simply opened “the floor” for honest conversation about where we are as a country and where we need to go next. It was the hour and a half long conversation that followed, that moved me more than anything I had experienced before. It made me think about things that I had never crossed my mind.
It is here that I will do my best to explain the conversation that we had, so that you too might be as enlightened as I was that evening.
Joe McGill – The Slave Dwelling Project
Joe began the project sleeping in slave dwellings throughout the US to bring attention to the true history of slavery. He writes on his web page, “Now that I have the attention of the public by sleeping in extant slave dwellings, it is time to wake up and deliver the message that the people who lived in these structures were not a footnote in American history.”
Say their Names
Enslaved people were not footnotes, however that’s how they have been treated. Joe, and our historic foundations, are now working to change that.
The reality is, the enslaved people of this country are just as important to the history of our country as that of the slave owners. This country was founded on the free labor that was forced from the enslaved. Their names are just as important as any of the ones that you know. The history books have just never been written to reflect that. Abraham, Bill, Bestey, Violet, and Penny, as well as the other 95+ slaves on Oxmoor Farm, deserve as much remembrance as Alexander Scott Bullitt (owner of Oxmoor Farm, and namesake of Bullitt County). It is because of the enslaved that the Bullitt family was able to build the home they did, aquire the land that they did, and have the influence that they had.
The enslaved people of this country have a right to be remembered, and we have a responsibility to make sure their names are not forgotten. You see, the majority of enslaved people were not allowed to learn to read and write. They never had a voice. Their story was told, if at all, by their owners. While we will never know their complete side of the story, we have to do a better job of telling the story as correctly as we can, including the ugly truth.
On the Topic of Genealogy
Joe began by stating that he doesn’t consider himself an African American. He’s an American. His explanation was that he doesn’t know if he’s from Africa. He doesn’t know where his ancestors originated, and for many black people this is the same story. They are able to trace their heritage back only a few generations before tic marks appear on censuses. Their ancestors go from named people to unnamed property. Stop and take that in for just a minute.
Another thing Joe noted, which had never crossed my mind, is that his family name is really not his. In fact, he has no way of knowing his true family name. All too often, the enslaved where given the last name of their owners. When you hear certain family names, you automatically know where they originated. Many black families don’t have that heritage. Slavery stole that from them.
One the Topic of Confederate Monuments
I’ve struggled over the last few years with the removal of monuments. In my eyes, they are reminders of where we have been and where we don’t wish to go ever again. I know others have different views, so on this evening, I took the opportunity to discuss it with the group and with Joe. If we take them down, how do we keep from erasing the history they represent?
The response was one that completely shocked me. “They never should have been there to begin with.” Wait, what? I thought I was fairly educated. I research history just about every day. What on earth could it mean that this monuments shouldn’t have been there to begin with?
The conversation continued when someone explained that these monuments were not raised right after the Civil War ended. According to History.com, “During that time, commemorative markers of the Civil War tended to be memorials that mourned soldiers who had died…” Instead, these monuments were put up during the Jim Crow era, between 1890 and 1950. They were put up as propoganda during our period of segregation. These monuments glorified the Confederate leaders in a time when people where degraded because of the color of their skin.
How on earth I had made it this far without that knoweldge, I’ll never know. Truthfully, I know one reason, because the history books don’t tell it that way. We were back to the importance of shifting the narrative. Automatically, my point of view changed, and I was just as angry as others that those monuments were erected and that some still stand on courthouse lawns.
On the Topic of Reparations
The definition of reparations is, “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.” Joe opened the conversation by saying that the conversations we were having were a form of reparation. We were all working to correct the wrong that was done, to correct the wrong stories that have been told. He clearly stated, reparations do not have to be in the form of money.
I know for me, I’ve been bothered with the idea of financial reparations. How can we blame people today for the things their 7th and 8th great grandparents did in a very different time and place? I honestly don’t believe that we can. However, having conversations about what was done is certainly something we NEED to do, to set the story straight.
On this particular evening, Joe was joined by Rodney Prioleau, a brickmaker from Louisiana, currently living in South Carolina. Rodney was scheduled to demonstrate his skills at Riverside, the Farnsley-Moreman Landing, the next day as part of the weekend’s events. On this Friday evening, he joined us in our conversations.
Rodney explained that being from Louisiana he was a true Geechee, which I knew nothing about, until I came home and researched it. Because of his unique ancestory, he was able to tell us stories of the deep south, stories that would make you cry. He explained the origins of words and phrases we sometimes use today. He spoke of the importance of knowing where words and phrases come from, because it can sometimes be offensive to others that know its true meaning.
We were also later joined by Jerome Bias, who was leading a cooking demonstration on Saturday at Riverside. He brought us kabocha pies that he had baked. He explained that a kabocha is a root vegetable that enslaved people often used to make pies, because it was sweet and had a taste and texture like a pumpkin and sweet potato combined. He also told us that enslaved people would often eat the leaves of the plant as well for extra nourishment. While the enslaved were fed by their owners, they were often fed just enough to keep them alive, but not strong enough to overtake their overseers or to escape. Most enslaved grew their own vegetable gardens around their cabins to improve their diets.
Wrapping up the Evening
After enjoying our pie (which was delicious!) so graciously made by Jerome, we mingled and had additional small conversations within the group. I had the opportunity to chat more with Rodney and a few others who had come out for the night. I loved listening to him speak. His dialect was so unique, it is not one you hear often in Kentucky. He told of his experiences with making bricks and explained the things you can learn from how they were made. He was a wealth of knowledge, and I could have talked with him all night. It was however, getting late, and many people were loading up and heading home. I made my Kentucky hospitality rounds of thanks and good night, and headed for home myself.
I knew driving home that night that this post was one I HAD to make. So much of what I thought to be true had been derailed. I saw things in a new light, and for all the enslaved whos names will never be known, I had to shift the narrative. Joe McGill is shifting the narrative one slave dwelling at a time, and I am destined to do it one post at a time.
I hope that this post has set you thinking about things differently. I hope it has helped you think about those that don’t get the recognition they deserve. I hope you will try to be one small pebble in a pond. You never know how far the ripples will reach.
Next time, the history of Oxmoor Farm. Until then, Happy Travels!
3 thoughts on “Slavery in Kentucky”
WELL DONE. Very informative.
Excellent! Thank you for the post.