Civil War: Aftermath Still Impacts Race in KY

Apr 26, 2011

A border state during America's Civil War, Kentucky is said to have joined the Confederacy AFTER the war ended. That legacy had a negative impact on race relations that some say exists to this day.

Five famous Kentucky sons gaze across the Capitol rotunda in Frankfort Abraham Lincoln, Alben Barkley, Henry Clay, Ephraim McDowell, and Jefferson Davis. Absent are likenesses of the Commonwealth's accomplished African Americans. To some, the omission is a racial snub.

"You're exactly right," said state Senator Gerald Neal, one of only seven African Americans among the General Assembly's 138 members.

Racial attitudes in Kentucky following the Civil War prompted many blacks to leave the state. That exodus, says University of Kentucky visiting professor of law William Wiecek, weakened the ability of Kentuckians to resist segregation-based Jim Crow laws that came later.

"After the war, culturally, Kentucky embraced the cause of the South and self-identified as a southern state and part of that process was absorbing the mentality of the myth of the lost cause and the consequent creation of a racial ideology that established white supremacy, " said Wiecek.

Those attitudes, coupled with a post-war reputation for violence, made Kentucky an unattractive place for blacks. Things haven't gotten much better over the years. For the past seven decades Kentucky's black population has been no more than 7 and a-half percent. That's far and away the lowest percentage of African Americans of any southern state.

Do those figures mean Kentucky is an unwelcoming place for African Americans? Not necessarily, says Mississippi State University professor Anne Marshall, who says the answers are complicated.
Marshall is author of the book, "Creating a Confederate Kentucky".

"If you are African American in rural Kentucky, I think in some ways that would be harder than to be African American in rural Mississippi because that percentage of population of rural African Americans in Kentucky is smaller," said Marshall.

The low numbers, according to Marshall, make the climate ripe for marginalization and greater opportunity for discrimination.

Al Cross, University of Kentucky Director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, says the fact that blacks in many counties are a rarity has left the state immature about racial issues.

"Too many Kentuckians are simply unfamiliar with black people or any people of color. They're used to dealing simply with the white folks like themselves that they grew up with in the local community and unless they go to the big city or go to college, they are unlikely to have much interaction," said Cross.

But even Kentucky's more black-friendly urban areas, like Lexington and Louisville, have problems attracting and keeping and African Americans. State Senator Gerald Neal, who teaches history at the University of Louisville, says for many African Americans, Kentucky is an afterthought.

"People in Louisville, Kentucky who I grew up with go to Atlanta, Georgia to live. They don't come back, they don't want to come back. We have colonies in Indianapolis which used to be the place not to go. They will not come back to Louisville. Louisville and Kentucky are backwards to where they perceive themselves to be, said Neal.

Neal says Kentucky has made progress over the years on racial issues but claims successes are being eroded. He points to what he calls the resegregation of housing patterns in Louisville.

Meanwhile, other former slave states, like North Carolina are seeing a resurgence in black migration. At least at this time in its history, Kentucky continues to lag behind. It's a legacy born of slavery and in the aftermath of the Civil War.