Civil War: Signs of Slavery Remain in Lexington

Apr 20, 2011

It's a cold rainy, early spring morning at Lexington's Mary Todd Lincoln House, the restored childhood home of the former First Lady groups of visitors from places as far away as Florida and Wisconsin, crowd into the foyer as Executive Director Gwen Thompson preps them for the tour.

"We're going to start right here with this photograph which is an image of what this hallway looked like before the restoration we want everyone to appreciate that it was in quite a state of disrepair so if you'll just head right in here into the family parlor, Marianne is going to be your guide "

Attendance has been on the rise since the recent two hundredth birthday of Abraham Lincoln, and crowds are expected to be strong at similar historic sites this spring because of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. Docent Vickie Middleswarth says a visit to any one of those places is likely to inform people of the unique and complicated role Kentucky played in the conflict.

"Kentuckians supported the Union and the Confederacy and this happened at the state level in politics and at the family level, so I think there are many lessons that we can learn today about how Kentucky coped with that situation."

Lexington History Museum President and CEO Jamie Millard says the city's status as a major commercial hub, made it attractive to both sides.

"for the Union to hold and for the Confederacy to try to retake. Which it does a few times .not successfully and not for a long period of time, but Lexington changes hands more than one time during the war, which means we are a militarized city."

A city with more often than not, divided loyalties that could literally change from city block to city block.

"The Hunt Morgan House up in Gratz Park faces the Bodley Bullock House, right across the park obviously the Morgans were sympathetic to the south, and the Bodley Bullock House at the time served as the headquarters for the Union Army when it was located in Lexington"

Yvonne Giles, with Lexington's Isaac Scott Hathaway African American History Museum, says slavery was a big reason for those divided loyalties. Many of the city's prominent families, including the Todds and the descendants of Henry Clay, owned slaves. And in the decade or so before the Civil War, Lexington was home to one of the region's largest slave markets in Cheapside Park.

"There were at least five slave jails along Short Street, Main Street, Broadway, and numerous other buildings. And the newspaper is just full of advertisements for all the slave dealers."

So, 150 years later, Giles says, as uncomfortable as it might be, the local historic community is dealing with Lexington's racially-charged past the only way it can.

"We've had people come into our museum because we have a section on slavery some artifacts, shackles, collars, and archived information about the period of slavery. And I've had to console some of our visitors. They get very, very upset. I remind them this is not something you did nor I did. It's part of our history and we need to know this. We need to understand it so that then we can understand what is happening to us now."

And when one considers that the Civil War Centennial happened during the lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides of the Civil Rights movement, local historians hope the sesquicentennial will serve as a teachable moment for how far Lexington and the nation has come, and how far it still needs to go.