Kentucky African Americans: "So Much Remains to be Told"
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Kentucky African Americans:
"So Much Remains to be Told"

State Historian James C. Klotter's 1982 article, "Clio in the Commonwealth: The Status of Kentucky History," offers a standard by which to measure the current status of scholarship on Kentucky African Americans. Klotter wrote that, "Over the years, Kentuckians have proved themselves a history-minded people, both aware and proud of their past." But this noble conviction was in "contradiction" to the number of historical works which have actually been published. Although Kentucky was "blessed historically" in some fields of study, Klotter concluded that the state paled by comparison to the level of scholarship produced by other states. As histories of other states expanded in volumes written, historical recordkeeping, analysis, and publication, Kentucky historiography lagged behind. Courthouse fires, the failure to retain records, and the belated effort to collect primary sources had created a great challenge for those wanting to write about Kentucky. However, as the twentieth century progressed, the opportunities to conduct scholarly research eventually improved.1 [End Page 287]

Klotter proposed several research projects on Kentucky history. He recommended writing city and county histories, establishment of political quantification studies, and biographies of state politicians, literary figures, and women. He proposed work on social, political, and economic historical topics, including studies of African Americans. Klotter believed studies on slavery, the African American community, leadership, and voting patterns were especially important initiatives. He concluded his perceptive analysis on the status of Kentucky history with an image of the vast opportunities awaiting scholars interested in researching and writing about the state:

Just as Kentucky's first 'historian' John Filson portrayed Daniel Boone looking out over the state and viewing with amazement and anticipation the 'wonderful level of Kentucke,' historians of today can survey Kentucky history and feel similar excitement. Historigraphically, it remains a place of few settlements and much mystery. The answers await their own explorers-the Boones of history.2

While documentation of Kentucky history was slow to evolve, the Kentucky African American story faced even greater challenges. But in 1970, the Kentucky General Assembly issued a resolution for state agencies to incorporate the African American experience into the narratives of Kentucky history taught to all students. The following year the black history committee of the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights produced Kentucky's Black Heritage. Written for seventh- and eighth-grade students "as a supplement to existing texts on Kentucky history," this booklet of one hundred and sixty-two pages offered a sweeping overview of Kentucky black history. The four units of the book covered a basic narrative of American history: slavery, the Civil War, segregation, and the civil rights struggle. 3 It was an admirable work, though more summary than analysis.

In 1982, Alice Dunnigan's The Fascinating Story of Black Kentuckians: [End Page 288] Their Heritage and Tradition gave readers an encyclopedic version of black history. Dunnigan was born near Russellville, Kentucky, in 1906. After attending school in Kentucky, she taught in rural schools and wrote for various Kentucky newspapers. In 1942, she moved to Washington, D.C., where she became a member of the Associated Negro Press. She was extended access to presidential press conferences. In 1948, she accompanied Harry Truman on a trip throughout the West, becoming the first African American to travel with a U.S president. Dunnigan later served on the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity under presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.4

Having experienced the difficulties and challenges of racial oppression and discrimination while succeeding against the odds, Dunnigan understood the value of promoting black pride in Kentucky and America. She made clear that her book was "not intended for exclusive use as a textbook, packed with dull, dry, historic incidents designed only for scholarly classroom teaching. Rather it is a document formulated into simple, chatty, everyday language intended for easy and pleasant reading. It is spiced with funny anecdotes, amusing folktales and humorous poems by or about Kentuckians."5

Similar to Kentucky's Black Heritage, Dunnigan's work gave further evidence of the rich black history of the state. Meanwhile, historian George C. Wright was evaluating the state of black history in Kentucky. Wright began reconsidering...