Novelist discusses slavery in Kentucky

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By Randy Patrick/Landmark News Service

Marse Williams stepped away from the carriage, held up an official-looking paper with facing markings on it. “All this talk about the Emancipation Proclamation.” He wadded up the paper as if it were garbage and threw it on the ground. “This is the first day of 1863, but it’s still Kentucky. It doesn’t free any of you.”

“It doesn’t free you,” he pointed toward Joe while he ground the paper beneath his boot heel. “Or you.” He pointed toward Rachel.

Rachel, a young slave who flees from bondage with her son, and Joe, her husband, are composite characters in Stephen Allten Brown’s historical novel, “A Promise Moon,” which he read excerpts from Sunday at the Nelson County Public Library.

The passage illustrates the conundrum of slavery in Kentucky, which was a Union state where slavery was allowed long after President Lincoln’s order made it illegal in the rebel states.

Slavery was legal in Kentucky until December 1865, although the state didn’t ratify the 13th Amendment until 1976.

In his Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau lecture, Brown chose passages that focused on Nelson County and talked about the importance the county played in the escape of slaves.

Bardstown Road, now U.S. 31E, was a toll road and a major route that connected to the Natchez Trace. For a time, Abraham Lincoln’s father operated the toll booth.

“If you were living in Bardstown 150 years ago, you would see slaves roped together like animals walking down that street right there,” Brown said.

The writer said 1,000 slaves a year escaped, many of them through this area.

Although some were helped by the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safehouses associated with abolitionists, most escaped unaided.

The penalty for harboring a slave could be a year in jail, and slaves were so valuable, white people usually couldn’t be trusted to avoid the temptation of the reward.

A slave in Kentucky might sell for $200, more than a farm with fertile land and running water. In the Deep South, they were worth five times as much.

One group that did harbor fugitives, Brown said, was the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, who have records of them.

“This area tended to be more forward-thinking than most due to the Catholic influence,” Brown said.

Most people in Kentucky didn’t own slaves, or might have one and lease him to other landowners to do the hardest work, like clearing land or building roads.

The owner of the ferry across the Rolling Fork used them to pull the boats.

If a slave made it to Louisville, she was only a few hundred yards from freedom. Escape often occurred in winter across ice, because most couldn’t swim.

Danny Martin, who attended the lecture with his son, Jonah, said he didn’t know Bardstown played an important role in travel from Louisville to the South.

“That was interesting,” he said.

Autumn Hicks of Bardstown teaches fifth grade in Louisville. She was excited about going back to school and relating what she had learned to her kids.

Many of her students are African Americans, she said, so slavery is part of their past.

“They want to know what it was like to live as a slave and how they escaped,” she said.