Racial Politics in Central Kentucky during the Post–Reconstruction Era: Bourbon County, 1877–1899
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Racial Politics in Central Kentucky during the Post–Reconstruction Era:
Bourbon County, 1877–1899

Race was a major factor in shaping politics in the postbellum South during the late nineteenth century, and it has continued to shape the politics of the region until the present day. From the creation of biracial governance during the Reconstruction era, to Redemption and the rise of the white Democratic Party in the 1870s and 1880s, to disfranchisement at the end of nineteenth century in the early twentieth century and the creation of the one-party system, and to reenfranchisement with the Voting Rights Act (1965) and the rise of Republican hegemony in our own time, race has been a major factor in shaping southern politics. Partisan alignments and election outcomes, the style of political campaigning, and both the formal and informal electoral rules of various southern states cannot be understood apart from patterns of racial stratification.

The importance of race in shaping past and present southern politics is beyond question. By contrast, historians and political analysts have generally downplayed the historical importance of race as politically consequential in Kentucky and in other border states. The fact that white Kentuckians often embraced a Confederate identity [End Page 347] and the "Lost Cause" after the war is acknowledged, as is the racial violence and racist culture of the postbellum era, including the extralegal and legal violence against African American citizens.1 But the role of racial issues and attitudes in shaping partisan alignments, political campaigns, election outcomes, and institutional rules in post–Reconstruction Kentucky and later has generally been ignored.

The relative inattention to racial politics in Kentucky during the post–Reconstruction era and later is understandable. In most parts of the state, the small numbers of the African American population have minimized its potential to be an important political or partisan force. Race simply has not been determinative of election outcomes in those counties where the black population is small. However, a small African American population has not always been the case for several counties in this state. Following the Civil War, the black population was largely concentrated in a few agriculturally wealthy counties where slavery had been concentrated. These counties were located in the inner-Bluegrass region in central Kentucky and in a few wealthy agricultural counties in western Kentucky. In these counties, African American citizens in the post–Reconstruction era were positioned by their numerical strength to challenge prevailing patterns of political, economic, and racial inequality.

Prior to the Civil War, all of these counties contained large black populations. Todd and Christian counties illustrate such agriculturally rich counties in western Kentucky, as shown by data from the 1860 census. African Americans comprised 46.3 percent of the population in Christian County and 42.6 percent in Todd County. The same antebellum pattern is found in the inner-Bluegrass counties of central Kentucky. For example, Bourbon County in 1860 had the second-highest percentage black population (47.6 percent) among all Kentucky counties. Only Woodford County, another inner-Bluegrass [End Page 348] county, showed a higher black percentage of the population (53 percent). Six of the top-ten counties in terms of black population in 1860 were located in the inner-Bluegrass region. Only Madison County did not fall in the top-ten category. By contrast, blacks comprised less than 3 percent of the population in thirteen other counties in 1860. Most of these were located in the Appalachian part of the state.2

The census data for 1880 show that the concentration of the black population in these same counties continued into the post–Reconstruction era. For example, the black population of Bourbon County still comprised 45.8 percent of the population in 1880, ranking the county third highest in the state on this indicator. Interestingly, a steady decline of the black population in Bourbon County and elsewhere in the Bluegrass area occurred from 1880 to 1960, while the white population shows a steady, incremental increase during the same period. Still, the size of the black population allowed it to be a significant political force in this county and elsewhere through the end of the nineteenth century and into...