Boyd County, Kentucky

BOYD CO. (Carl F. Hall)

The Commonwealth of Kentucky, having for a northern boundary the Ohio River-the dividing line between the northern free states and the southern slave states has always been regarded as a southern state. As in the other states of the old south, slavery was an institution until the Thirteenth Ammendment to the Constitution of the United States gave the negro freedom in 1865.

Kentucky did not, as other southern states, secede from the Union, but attempted to be neutral during the Civil War. The people, however, were divided in their allegience, furnishing recruits for both the Federal and Confederate armies. The president of the Union, Abraham Lincoln, and the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, both were born in this state.

Boyd County was formed in 1860 from parts of Lawrence, Greenup and Carter Counties, and we are unable to find any records, in Boyd County, as to slave holders and their slaves, though it is known that many well to do families the Catletts, Davis, Poages, Williams and others were slave holders.

Slaves were not regarded as persons, had no civil rights and were owned just as any other chattel property, were bought and sold like horses and cattle, and knew no law but the will of their white masters and like other domestic animals could be, and were, acquired and disposed of without regard to family ties or other consideration.

Usually, as each slave represented a large investment of money, they were well cared for, being adequately fed, clothed and sheltered, having medical attention when sick.

As, along the border in Kentucky, there were no large plantations where field workers could be used, most of the slaves in this region were house servants, who were housed in wings of the master’s house, where the plantations were large enough to need many slaves, they were furnished one, or two, rooms cabins close by the mansion on the master’s estate.

As educated people are apt to be able to figure out ways to improve their lot, learning among the negroes was not encouraged, in fact it was illegal to teach them. In some instances an enlighted and humane master would teach a servant, and often they could find some one who would teach them secretly. As a race, however, they were, at the time they were set free, without any education at all.

Tales are told of cruel masters who overworked, flogged and otherwise mistreated their helpers and slaves; these masters, however, seem to have been an exception to the rule and considering that they were generally well provided for, many slaves were better off economically than the laborer of today who is a victim of misfortunes such as sickness, disability and old age.

One reason why slaves were better treated here than further south, was that Kentucky was a border state, and throughout Ohio and other northern states, was an organization known as the “Underground Railroad.” This was a sort of secret society whose members were sworn to assist escaped slaves to run away to Canada where they would be free. When a run-away slave crossed the Ohio River he would be met by some one of this organization and taken where he could remain in hiding by day, then by traveling by night, could reach another place of concealment by morning, where he would be fed and hidden until darkness permitted him to reach the next haven. By this means many were successful in reaching freedom, though they were hunted by officers, armed with guns, and assisted by fierce dogs especially trained for this work.

Negroes who were unruly, or were caught attempting to escape, were usually sold to planters in the far south where they could not hope to escape, and were forced to end their days in unremitting toil in the cotton and cane fields, forever separated from relatives and friends.

It was the barbarism practiced by cruel masters, so vividly portrayed in such books as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and songs like “Nellie Gray,” that awakened the nation’s conscience and brought about the bloody “Civil War” which resulted in the race being set free.

Just before the war, George Davis, a mulatto, son of his master and a black servant girl, was in Cincinnati and was accosted by two white men who offered to use the good offices of the “Underground Railroad” to help him to get away to Canada. Being well treated, as a trusted servant of his white father and master, he did not avail himself of this opportunity to escape and stayed on as a slave until Freed by the war, after which he went to Ohio and settled and prospered until his death.

Another slave, Asberry Parker, did escape, and traveling by night hiding by day, reached safety in Canada where he worked and saved until he became wealthy. After the war, when he could safely return to the United States, he moved to Ironton, Ohio, where he made his home for the rest of his life. He belonged in his days of slavery, to a Williams family, in Carter County, Kentucky.

Another slave, George McVodie, belonging to the Poage family, of Boyd Co., escaped and went to Canada, no [TR: missing word?] as to whether he ever came back later.

A sister of George Davis was sold to a planter in Louisiana where she lived until 1877, when she returned to Boyd County as a free woman.

As negroes, in slavery days, were regarded as beasts of burden not much interest was taken in the welfare of their souls. Some kind hearted masters would allow them the privilege of meeting in religious service, where some one of their race in spite of the conditions of the times, could read and explain the Bible, would preach. Other masters would not allow this to be done. A negro would become, in character much like the family who owned him, i.e., an honest, moral and kindly master would have slaves of like qualities, while a cruel, dishonest master would usually affect his slaves so that they would be tricky and unreliable.

Where the master did not personally supervise his slaves and left them to the mercies of a hired “over-seer,” their lot was usually much worse, as these task-masters were almost always tyranical and were not restrained by a sense of ownership from abusing the helpless creatures under their authority as were the master’s, whose money was invested in them.

On one occasion, a young negro saw his own sister stripped naked and unmercifully whipped by one of these over-seers. He gathered up all of his small belongings and tied them in a bundle and securing a club of wood, laid in wait for the cruel ‘boss’ until dark, when he killed him with the club. He then escaped, via the “Underground Railroad.”

One thing he was careful to do, was to avoid all telegraph poles, as that he thought the wires could detect and betray him, the telegraph was a mystery to his ignorant mind. He succeeded in making his way to Canada and freedom where he stayed until after the war, when it was safe to return.

The slave trade of importing slaves into the United States, being forbidden after about 1820, cut off the supply to such an extent that strong, healthy negroes became very high in price. Many Kentucky slave owners raised slaves for this market just as we today raise live stock on our farms.

Only the strong healthy slave women were allowed to have children, and often were not allowed to mate with their own husbands, but were bred like live stock to some male negro who was kept for that purpose because of his strong phisique, which the master wished to reproduce, in order to get a good price for his progeny, just like horses, cattle, dogs and other animals are managed today in order to improve the stock. Often the father of a comely black woman’s child, would be the master himself, who would heartlessly sell his own offspring to some other master, without regard for his welfare.

Many of the aristocratic women of the master class, to keep from the burdensome task of caring for their own children, and to assure themselves a life of leisure would delegate to one of the negro slave women the care of their own children.

Many of the upper class white children were cared for by these faithful black “Mammies” fed by the milk from their breasts. Countless stories are told of the love and devotion of the black “Mammy” for the white child who was brought to their ‘grown up’ years by her care.

A marriage between negroes, before freedom, had no legal standing; a negro couple, wishing to marry, had to get a permit from each master and were united in marriage by a ceremony with a preacher of their own race officiating. After the war, when they were made citizens with civil rights, many former slaves who had been married in this way, hastened to legalize their union by obtaining licenses and having a legal ceremony performed.

While the four years of Civil War, between the North and South resulted in the freedom of the slaves, the negro is yet restricted in many ways in the south. In many states, separate schools are maintained, the negro churches are separate, social equality is not recognized.

In Kentucky, intermarriages between the races are not allowed. Separate coaches are provided on railway trains, hotels, restaurants, theaters and other places of amusement, which cater to white customers, do not permit negro patrons. Many towns and cities have zoning ordinances forbidding negroes to live in white localities. In many southern states the negroes is prevented from voting by local regulations, in Boyd County colored people go to the polls and vote just like anyone else.

Negroes make good house servants, and are extensively used for that purpose today. White families employ them as chauffeurs, butlers, house boys, child nurses, maids and cooks, preferring them to white servants who are not so adaptable to such subordinate positions in life.

Colored men work in barber shops, in restaurants as waiters, and are largely employed as porters in hotels and on railway coaches. Colored women work in hotels as cooks, chamber maids, and are commonly employed as elevator operator in hotels and office buildings.

Not many negroes are in business locally, as race prejudice prevents white folks from trading at colored stores, and the local colored population is too small to provide many customers of their own race. Many ambitious colored folks have left here and gone to the large cities of the north, and made conspicious successes in business. Some have succeeded in the professions as doctors, lawyers, actors, and writers and other vocations.

All in all, the race has progressed to an astonishing degree since being set free a generation ago.

Politics: Formerly, the negro, attributing his freedom to the efforts of Abraham Lincoln in his behalf, voted almost solidly for the Republican Party. Now, however, the Democrats have, by remembering the race when passing out jobs, gained recruits among the colored people, and some negro Democrats are found here. The negro has been accused of voting for money, but it is doubtful if as a race, he is any more prone to this practice than his white fellow citizens among whom this abuse seems to be growing.

Federal Writers' Project. WPA Slave Narratives. Web. 2007-2024. The WPA Slave Narratives must be used with care. There is, of course, the problem of confusion in memory resulting from (73+ years) of the participants. In addition, inexperienced interviewers sometimes pursued question lines related to their own interests and perspectives and attempted to capture the colloquialism of the informant's speech. The interviews provide fascinating insight and surprisingly candid information, however.

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