If you live in Kentucky, it is hard to avoid hearing the state song, My Old Kentucky Home. But it is a song with a lot of historical baggage relating to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in Kentucky. Our guest, historian Emily Bingham, will help us unpack that baggage. She is the author of an upcoming book about the song, Singing About Slavery: “My Old Kentucky Home.”
There are clear lines that connect the legacy of slavery to many of our present day issues, including the racial inequities of COVID-19 infection and deaths, wealth inequality, and ongoing police brutality. A true and deep understanding of our history allows us to navigate the present moment and stop running away from the past. Features interviews with Sadiqa Reynolds, Dr. Ricky Jones, Dr. Kidada Williams, Dr. Anita Fernander, and Dr. William Darity.
In addition to being a slave trader and the kidnapper of Henrietta Wood (which we heard about in our last episode), Kentuckian Zebulon Ward made a fortune as a pioneer of the convict leasing system, which, through a loophole in the 13th Amendment, continued slavery by another name for decades after the Civil War.
In 1848, Henrietta Wood was delighted to be granted her freedom when her enslaver moved to Ohio, a free state. But five years later, she was kidnapped, taken across the river to Kentucky, and sold back into slavery for another 13 years. In 1878, she successfully sued her kidnapper and received the largest known sum ever granted by a U.S. court in restitution for slavery.
In the years that followed the Civil War, many Kentuckians embraced the Lost Cause ideology, even if they had fought for the Union. And some joined armed vigilante groups that used violence and terror to keep Black Kentuckians away from power and prosperity.
Kentuckians fought on both sides of the Civil War but came together at war’s end to oppose a common foe—newly emancipated African Americans yearning for education, dignity, and a decent living. In the process, the state pioneered restrictive racial laws that became models for the rest of the South.
The Civil War was a confusing time for enslaved people in Kentucky. Because the state remained loyal to the Union, the Emancipation Proclamation did not apply and slavery remained legal. And yet when tens of thousands of enslaved Kentuckians joined the Union Army, both the soldiers and their family members were considered free.
Due to prohibitions against enslaved people learning to read and write, there are only a few written records left behind by formerly enslaved Kentuckians. But thankfully, over 100 people were interviewed during the 1930s about their experiences while enslaved. These narratives, combined with letters and diaries kept by white enslavers, help us better understand the true nature of slavery in Kentucky.
Kentucky was an important hub of America’s internal slave trade, with fortunes made by slave traders and those who invested in enslaved people as commodities. We hear from members of a white family that descend from a Louisville slave trader and learn how integral slavery was to their wealth and to the economy of the state of Kentucky.
The history of slavery is often taught as a bitter chapter of America’s past that has been rectified. But in Kentucky that history has been rarely acknowledged, and is poorly documented. This has made it particularly difficult for African American families to learn anything about their enslaved ancestors. We’ll meet one Black family just beginning to learn about their family’s connections to a plantation in Louisville.