Kentucky’s Enslaved Sold into the Hard Labor of the Deep South

Posted March7, 2016


     In the state of Kentucky, free African Americans represented less than 1 percent of the population in 1830: a total of only 4,917 individuals. Although small, this population challenged the institution of slavery as an indelible fact of life for people of African descent as the nation expanded west. The presence of these quasifree individuals constantly reminded the enslaved of their unnatural state while simultaneously undermining slaveholders’ power over their human chattel, especially in urban locations such as Louisville and Lexington. Free African Americans established a sense of citizenship and identity by relying on one another and by working to contribute to the stability of their small communities. Nevertheless, the status of free blacks was a constant debate among the Kentucky legislators of the day.
Slavery is, by design, patriarchal, and in nineteenth-century America it could be useful only within a large agricultural economy. As the needs of Kentucky farmers and manufacturers began to change, slaveholders found themselves with a surplus of workers who still required food, clothing, and shelter. To mitigate the costs of keeping their human chattel, slaveholders hired out or sold off numerous slaves. The slave traders who bought these slaves took them to the Deep South to fill the increasing demand for labor there. As one historian describes the industry, “Negro trading in Kentucky was a constantly growing evil, which had begun with the comparatively innocent buying and selling of slaves by the individual owners to satisfy their own desires.”
By the mid-1830s, the practice was more widespread than historians are willing to admit. Gentlemen farmers became slave breeders, buying and participating in the reproduction of human chattel to exploit for the financial rewards.43 Kentucky slaveholders advertised their “good breeding stock”—girls as young thirteen who were purchased and immediately began having their masters’ children. These unions were reminiscent of the raping of African girls and women bound and chained on ships destined for the Caribbean and North and South America during the Middle Passage.

     Children born from these violent episodes were sold if they survived the voyage. Likewise, the mulatto children born on their master-fathers’ farms were kept as additional labor; sold to the highest bidders at slave markets such as Cheapside in Lexington, to be used as domestic help; hired out as factory labor; or sold downriver to Natchez, Mississippi, or New Orleans, Louisiana.

McDaniels, Pellom, III. “Into the Bluegrass.’’ The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2013. 39-40. Print.

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