The saga of Kentucky race relations typically focuses on African American life in Louisville and Lexington. Professor Jack Glazier of Oberlin College took a different path to explore a neglected part of the racial history and culture of Kentucky.
As a child in Hopkinsville, Glazier’s family was connected with Idella Bass, an African American woman who helped to raise him. After completing anthropological studies on immigration, he decided to reconnect with the family of Miss Bass in western Kentucky. Finding very few persons who retained any memory of the Bass family, he discovered that the region surrounding Hopkinsville had sustained a social memory of racial accommodation and moderation even though the community had practiced citizen-based lynch law, terrorism, and other violent behaviors that would be considered uncivilized in the twenty-first century.
Although using an anthropological perspective instead of the historian’s unbiased analysis of the data, the author carefully introduces the unfamiliar reader to the context of late antebellum-era Hopkins-ville and the surrounding region. In this part of the narrative, the struggle of local whites to support both the Union and retain slavery becomes central. Given the absence of black primary sources, African American voices about life in the region are often extracted through hostile white supremacist sources.
The region’s black social institutions, such as churches and civic groups, along with businessmen who survived the state’s institutionalized racial segregation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, provided help to the black community. Moreover, the [End Page 277] author asserts that some local black leaders bought into the Booker T. Washington paradigm—when necessary—of accommodation to white supremacist practices and policies. Periodic eruptions of white angst over economic issues, such as the fluctuating price of tobacco, also produced racially tinged violence towards blacks.
Regarding the latter part of the twentieth century, interviews of local blacks reveal that accommodation to local white control was no longer an accepted tradition among a newer generation of African Americans. By the end of the twentieth century, Hopkinsville and the surrounding region had begun to slowly relinquish, but not end, its hostility towards blacks. According to the author, unsuccessful efforts in 1972 to secure the election of a black mayoral candidate in Hopkinsville revealed continuing racial antipathy.
Overall, this is a valuable exploration of the painful but historical racial memories in western Kentucky communities, in particular Hopkinsville and surrounding areas in Christian County. Local history books on southern communities sometimes avoid extensive discussions of slavery and racial segregation as integral forces and instead define their community as racially moderate and largely peaceful. Professor Glazier’s thoughtful narrative avoids this misstep for western Kentucky and, therefore, provides students of Kentucky African American social history with a needed analytical contribution.
John A. Hardin is a professor of history at Western Kentucky University. His previous publications include Onward and Upward: A Centennial History of Kentucky State University, 1886-1986 (1987) and Fifty Years of Segregation: Black Higher Education in Kentucky, 1904-1954 (1997). He is a general co-editor of the Kentucky African American Encyclopedia (forthcoming, 2014).