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  • The Democratic Partisan Militia and the Black Peril:The Kentucky Militia, Racial Violence, and the Fifteenth Amendment, 1870-1873
  • Patrick A. Lewis (bio)

In late July 1870, Fredrick Douglass's New Era, published in Washington, foretold a great revolution in the Bluegrass state. "The Democrats in Kentucky are in sore tribulation lest they should loose [sic] the Ashland Congressional district, through the colored vote, which will be cast for the first time at the coming election." As many white Bluegrass Democrats saw it, the elections in August 1870 would either stem the recent tide of sweeping social changes that began with the Emancipation Proclamation, saw the abolition of slavery at the end of the Civil War, and now had seen the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment earlier in the year or it would realize their greatest fears. Douglass quoted from the Louisville Courier-Journal, which had asserted that "no event could happen in Kentucky which would spread a more general feeling of humiliation than the transfer of the renowned Ashland district to the control of the former slaves of the voters who elected a Clay, a Crittenden, . . . and a Breckinridge." But such a reality, Douglass warned, faced the Kentucky Democracy.1

That same summer, Douglass observed that the Kentucky Democrats had "built their shanty on the bank of slavery, but the rising tide of freedom and equality has flooded back into the wretched hovel. . . . That tide is resistless." Kentucky whites, too, sensed the rising tide. Lexington attorney, city [End Page 145] councilman, and later congressman W. C. P. Breckinridge recalled that 1870 was a year of "The Black Peril." With the loss of Democratic political control a potential reality after the amendment, whites convinced themselves that a subsequent domino effect would end in Republican control and "negro domination" of the state. "The fate of New Orleans and other Southern cities under negro rule," said Breckinridge, "were terrible object lessons."2

As Breckinridge's allusion to New Orleans and the rest of the Reconstruction South suggests, the "humiliation" of falling to "negro rule" was something that Kentucky's Democrats had watched happen to other southern whites after congressional Reconstruction realized black suffrage in the former Confederacy. However, because Kentucky had not seceded and was not being formally reconstructed, the Democratic state government denied the ballot to African Americans until the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment. 3 The elections of 1870 were to be the first in which the solvency of the Kentucky Democracy was to be challenged by a Republican Party consisting of both whites and blacks.

And the challenge would be a formidable one. While Kentucky's freedmen had not been allowed to participate in formal elections until five years after their freedom from slavery, black leaders throughout the state had used the time to prepare the state's African American population to have an immediate impact upon their enfranchisement. Colored Men's Conventions with delegates elected locally from across the state began as early as 1865, the thirty thousand black Kentuckians who had served in the Union army during the war became apostles of freedom and citizenship as they returned home, and while the hostile state government limited much of what the Freedmen's Bureau could accomplish, it could not prevent the establishment of one of the bureau's most successful school systems. By the time the bureau pulled out of Kentucky in 1870 (ironically, perhaps, just when the freedpeople were to need its services the most), African American schools were spread throughout the state, received the majority of their funding from local black communities, and [End Page 146] employed teaching staff of whom 80 percent were black.4 Increasingly literate, mobile, and connected to an imagined black community through bureau agents and an emerging Republican press, Kentucky's freedpeople were well aware of how the power of the vote had established and maintained the Republican governments further south.5 The "rising tide of freedom" that had swept over the former Confederacy in 1867 and 1868 would finally reach Kentucky in 1870. Nurtured for five years in rundown schoolhouses and nocturnal meetings, Kentucky's African Americans had learned to be free, to be literate; the males had learned to...


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pp. 145-174
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