Kentucky and the Underground Railroad

Dating back to the mid-1700s, several decades before Kentucky entered the Union, enslaved African Americans lived all over the Bluegrass State.

 

Historical records show that they worked in various capacities – as farm and salt mine laborers, construction and iron workers, blacksmiths, and other occupations, many of which fluctuated depending on the season of the year.   

 

As in many states across the country at that time, there were very strong pro- and anti-slavery sentiments. Kentucky was a pro-slavery state, even though it had a sizeable free black population dotted throughout.

 

This hotly contested issue was a bit more complicated here because Kentucky was bordered to the north by Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio - all of which were free states. Because of this, Kentucky’s location played a pivotal role along The Underground Railroad.  

 

Come along as we explore this network of routes, safe havens, historic sites, and people—blacks, whites, Native Americans, and others—who participated in what is widely recognized as the first great freedom movement in the Americas.

 

Oldham County

 

Located in the north central part of the state about 25 miles northeast of downtown Louisville, Oldham County possesses a wealth of Underground Railroad history. 

 

At the Oldham County History Center you can learn about people like Henry Walton Bibb (1815-1854), a former slave turned abolitionist, author, newspaper editor (the first black person to do so in Canada), and lecturer.  In the latter role he travelled throughout several states as part of the anti-slavery movement.

 

Delia Ann Webster (1817-1904) was a trailblazer in that she achieved numerous distinctions that were virtually unheard of for women back-in-the-day.  These included educator, co-founder of a female academy, landowner, and conductor along the Underground Railroad.  

 

You can enjoy a special podcast series created by The Oldham County History Center called “Thirty Days of Stories on the Underground Railroad in Kentucky.”

 

Oldham County is also part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, which details the road toward the abolition of slavery in the state.  

 

Lexington

 

Originally known as the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lexington is believed to be the oldest continuously used house of worship in the city – officially opening its doors as such in 1826.

 

Because Kentucky was a major pass-through point along the Underground Railroad, the black community here played a big part in aiding and hiding slaves as they made their escape toward freedom.  According to oral history, a small room above the sanctuary accessible via a narrow, winding, staircase hidden behind the chancel (the space around the altar and often where the clergy sit) was where they hunkered down until safe to move on.

 

Nicholasville

 

Situated approximately 20 miles south of Lexington, the city of Nicholasville is home to one of Kentucky’s most important stops along the Underground Railroad. 

 

Part of the National Park System, Camp Nelson National Monument (originally called Camp Nelson) came into being just prior to the formation of the U.S. Colored Troops in Kentucky.  As a military installment, Camp Nelson was in operation until 1866.  It served as a Union recruitment and training center, commissary depot, and hospital facility where 10,000 African American men enlisted during the Civil War.  Scores of enslaved women and children who were family members of soldiers escaping the plantations of the South, also lived here alongside the troops in a refugee camp.  After the Civil War ended, the camp became the community of Ariel, later renamed Hall.

 

Maysville

 

Although she only stayed in Kentucky for a short period of time, abolitionist, educator, and author Harriet Beecher Stowe is honored at the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum.

Located in Maysville about 85 miles northeast of Kentucky’s capitol, Frankfort, the museum is situated inside of the Marshall Key House.  Built in 1807, this brick Georgian townhouse named after Colonel Marshall Key, the nephew of U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall, is where in 1833, Stowe came to visit one of her students—Elizabeth Key—the daughter of Colonel Key.  During that visit she was taken to the nearby courthouse to watch a slave auction.  This visit was believed to have shaken her to the core.

 

Historical accounts differ as to whether witnessing the slave auction, or the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was the inspiration for her now best-selling work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, originally published in 1852.  

 

Maysville is also home to the National Underground Railroad Museum. The museum is in the city’s downtown historical district inside of a documented Underground Railroad Safe House called The Bierbower House. 

 

The house is named after German immigrants whose descendants served as officers in the Union Army and helped shelter escaping slaves. Memorabilia, artifacts, and other items here help paint the picture of the stories within the slave chambers hidden behind the servants’ quarters, and the heroic actions taken to help end slavery in Kentucky and further afield.  

 

Currently undergoing renovations, the museum is expected to reopen in May of 2022.
This is just the beginning of the wealth of Underground Railroad history in the Bluegrass State.  To learn more you can watch the documentary, “Kentucky’s Underground Railroad - Passage to Freedom.”

 

Written by By Lysa Allman-Baldwin

January 17, 2022