- The 1906 Uncle Tom’s Cabin Law and the Politics of Race and Memory in Early-Twentieth-Century Kentucky
In January 1902, Charles Scott, manager of the Lexington, Kentucky, Opera House, received some unwelcome correspondence from the city’s chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). The members wrote to inform him that they had drafted a petition demanding that he no longer book the traveling stage production of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This was disagreeable news to Scott. The show was one of the most popular acts in Lexington and played to packed audiences of black and white theater-goers there twice a year.
The UDC women based their opposition on the play’s portrayal of slavery as a cruel institution. Both the stage production and the novel on which it was based, they asserted, “present[ed] a picture of slavery in the South that is essentially false—false because it present[ed] what was rare and exceptional as normal and typical.” Though they granted that there may have been some instances of cruelty under slavery, they believed that relations between master and slave had been usually “kindly and mutually beneficial.” UDC officers buttressed this assumption by arguing that when southern men left for war, leaving slaves as “protectors and breadwinners” for southern women, bondsmen were nothing but faithful and devoted to their “helpless charges.”1
The UDC women also claimed that the play was “injurious to the community,” particularly its children. Perhaps more objectionable was the street parade designed to promote the show that had recently wound its way through the Lexington streets in the middle of the day. When it passed by a school during recess, this spectacle left a group of children to gaze upon two large bloodhounds and a “life size” statue of a slave in chains. “We cannot but feel that the influence left on their plastic minds by such a spectacle as that passing unrebuked through our streets was injurious to them and unjust to the memories of their fathers,” the petitioners wrote.2
In addition to keeping memories of their fathers and husbands morally pure, however, the women pled a case that appealed to many contemporary [End Page 368] white Kentuckians—not only those who could claim former Confederates or slaveowners as ancestors. The UDC members suggested that in a community like Lexington, “so largely composed of Negroes,” it would be dangerous to give African Americans “false conceptions of the lives of their fathers and grandfathers when they were slaves.” The portrayal of slavery in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as the visceral image of a slave in chains parading through the town streets, would, they asserted, “inflame race prejudice among the large class of our Negro citizens.” They no doubt anticipated that this argument would hold particular appeal in Lexington, a city in which both the white and black communities boasted of “good” race relations and were wary of anything that might change the precarious status.3
The UDC’s opposition to the negative portrayal of their slave-owning ancestors was little different from similar efforts of southerners to recast the peculiar institution as a benign historical phenomenon. Rather, it was their second, blatantly presentist aim of censoring what it considered inflammatory material that might provoke racial strife, which spawned an extensive local and national conversation between whites and African Americans over the meaning of the slavery and the war it had caused. Indeed, the UDC’s allegations touched off a protracted four-year campaign to halt performances of the play in Kentucky and prompted a debate over cultural representation of history among hundreds of African Americans and whites in Lexington, in Kentucky, and throughout the nation.
In their response to the UDC, local African Americans went beyond simply critiquing the organization’s version of history. They used the opportunity to air grievances about racial inequality and launched a vociferous counter-protest that eventually led black Lexingtonians to create their own censorship campaign aimed at stopping the planned staging of both Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman at the Opera House in 1905, and, ten years later, the film version, Birth...