"Upon This Rock"-The Free African American Community of Antebellum Louisville, Kentucky
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"Upon This Rock"-The Free African American Community of Antebellum Louisville, Kentucky

Introduction

Until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on December 18, 1865, the presumptive status of all African Americans in the United States was that of slave. However, from the arrival of the first Africans at Jamestown in 1619, a small minority of the black American population was not enslaved and played a critically important role in antebellum history-a role little known outside the ranks of professional historians.

This minority grew larger when the northern states began the slow process of ending slavery during the American Revolution and, by the mid-1820s, this "first emancipation" had eliminated human bondage in New England, the mid-Atlantic states and the Old Northwest Territory. For example, by 1800, the black American population had grown to slightly more than one million, 11 percent of whom were free and by 1830 the black population stood at more than two million, three hundred thousand, 14 percent of whom were free.1 Free [End Page 295] people of color became a small but significant minority of African Americans in Kentucky as well-with, by 1850, 10,011 free people of color (4.5 percent of the total black population) compared to 11,262 African Americans in Indiana, a free state (see Table 1).2

Table 1. African American Population, 1790-1860: Kentucky and the United States
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Table 1.

African American Population, 1790-1860: Kentucky and the United States

Free African Americans were vulnerable in the North and the South to constant discrimination and strict limitations on their civil liberties. On one hand, they were free and were "persons" in some sense under the law. As free people, their births and deaths were recorded. They could marry and enter into contracts, own property, pay taxes, make wills, own businesses (if a license was obtainable), and form organizations-and, unlike enslaved African Americans, the bare outline of their lives could be reconstructed from the public [End Page 296] record. On the other hand, in the most important respects, they were black and:

Because of intense racial antagonism, they were treated as outcasts throughout much of the north and west. However, the strength of this antagonism varied regionally. States in the "southern interior" or "Cotton Kingdom" were dependent upon and committed uncompromisingly to slavery, with no place for free people of color. In the "border and upper south," slavery existed but climatic conditions did not permit cotton cultivation. There, free people of color were tolerated, grudgingly, as an alien element . . . The combined effects of these factors scattered free African Americans throughout the border states and the north in towns, cities, and rural enclaves where opportunities were greatest and resistance was least.3

Louisville was one such community and, perhaps, the least-studied segment of its early social structure was a growing free-black population that coalesced into a viable community by the 1830s, representing nearly one-fifth of all African Americans in the city by 1860. In so doing, it became the largest free-black community in the Upper South, west of Baltimore, and the only meaningful concentration of free people of color in Kentucky.

This article will sketch the main lines of the development of that community.

Free People of Color in Antebellum Louisville

The free African American community of Louisville was not created by white Louisvillians, neither did it emerge in a vacuum nor by coincidence. Because free people of color tended to concentrate in urban areas, the growth of a sizable free African American population in Louisville was, to a great extent, a function of the growth of Louisville itself. Put simply, the location of Louisville at the Falls of the Ohio, the only break in navigation on the 981-mile length of the [End Page 297] Ohio River, transformed the city into a major center for commerce and transportation as American settlement moved westward and as cotton became "king" in the Gulf States after the War of 1812. By 1850, Louisville had grown from a small village into the tenth-largest city in the United States and, as illustrated in Table 2 below, the black population, particularly the free...


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