“Abe will be reelected”

Soldier William Ballew writes from Tennessee, 1864

It was November 12, 1864, and members of the 12th Kentucky Infantry were pondering the results of the presidential election held four days earlier.

Camped near Spring Hill, Tennessee, William Ballew wrote to friend Thomas Hopkins in Clinton County that his regiment had shown a strong preference for “Little Mac” – the nickname of President Abraham Lincoln’s challenger, Major General George B. McClellan.  Earlier, Lincoln had relieved McClellan of his command after becoming frustrated with his innate caution and failure to produce results on the battlefield.  Though popular with the average soldier, McClellan had run for president as the candidate of a Democratic Party hobbled by its split over what to do about the war.

While Pvt. Ballew himself was unsure which candidate would “be the best for the US,” he claimed access to a “decision desk” of his own, namely the votes of the African Americans in Nashville.  Five thousand of them, he reported, had “voted for abe.”  Ballew forecast “that if the election is carryed on every whare like it was in nashville that abe will be reelected for the negroes had the same privalege of voteing that the white man has.”

Ballew didn’t realize that what he had witnessed was only a mock election, conducted by a still-disenfranchised community demonstrating its intention to secure the “privalege” of the vote.  On Election Day, about 3,200 African Americans had assembled on College Street to participate in a symbolic poll that gave all but one of their votes to Lincoln.  The initiative came after a delegation of Tennessee freedmen returned from the National Colored Men’s Convention in Syracuse, New York determined to press their demands for equality and the abolition of slavery.  It turned out, of course, that their “votes” were prescient. While McClellan carried Kentucky, he secured only 45% of the national vote and lost the election to Lincoln.

William Ballew’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and typescript.  For more collections relating to the Civil War and elections generally, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Barroom Blitz

Polk Laffoon, James F. Clay and the barroom primary

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, Democrat James Franklin Clay had made an admirable showing in Washington as representative for Kentucky’s Second Congressional District.  When the Henderson lawyer sought re-election in 1884, however, he faced a challenge from within his own party.  James Knox Polk Laffoon was a relatively unknown Madisonville attorney, but “Polk” (his nephew Ruby Laffoon would become Kentucky’s governor in the 1930s) soon charmed the voting public with his “quiet, yet honest and open” demeanor.  And he had a dramatic backstory: as a youth of 17, he had entered the Confederate Army and endured two stints as a prisoner of war.  During a forced march from Bowling Green, a veteran recalled seeing “the gallant boy soldier” trudging through the rain and mud after giving up his horse to a sick, weak comrade. 

Laffoon’s dogged campaigning undercut Clay’s previously unassailable position.  At the party’s convention, ballot after ballot failed to give either man the nomination.  Laffoon, it was reported, could have broken through with “a little trickery” by courting an “uninstructed” delegation from a county where the voters supported his opponent, but resolved instead to “go down true” rather than risk staining his honor.  Finally, the convention resolved to hold a primary election to break the deadlock.

In the primary held on October 13, 1884, Clay carried his own Henderson County by a large majority, but across the district he lost to Laffoon by about 300 votes.  Several days later, the Courier-Journal correspondent assured readers that Clay’s supporters were “reconciled to their defeat, and will heartily support Polk Laffoon, who they credit with gallantly winning the fight.”

On the ground, it was a little grittier.  From McLean County, where Clay had eked out a 75-vote majority, a disappointed George Priest reported on his efforts to bring voters into the fold with incentives of the liquid kind.  In accordance with Clay’s instructions, the Livermore merchant had enlisted a local saloon-keeper “to run his Barroom in your interest on the day of [the] primary Election.”  Unfortunately, the campaign of the “boy soldier” had responded in kind, Priest griped, as the town’s “other two Barrooms were thrown wide open for Laffoon.”  Beaten at his own game, he “regretted exceedingly that such a man should be elected.”  All that was left was to settle accounts: $25 to the pro-Clay barroom keeper, and $12 to Priest for out-of-pocket expenses.  Oh, and one more thing, wrote Priest to the soon-to-be-lame-duck Congressman: “If there is anything ‘Soft’ in the way of a Government position that I am competent to fill please remember me.”

George Priest’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid and scan of the letter.  For more collections on election campaigns, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Left to their own devices

Party symbols on Warren County’s 1901 ballot

Bots and trolls aside, some of us may find our devices useful in making sense of the forthcoming election: to research candidates and polling places, request an absentee ballot, or get texts and updates from our favored office-seekers.  But the “device”—in its more archaic meaning of an emblem, logo or design—took on a different significance in past American elections.

Late in the 19th century, some Kentuckians could still cast a vote by voice, but others going to the polls were liable to be handed a ballot printed not by an election authority but by a particular political party.  One glance at the distinctive colors and markings of such “tickets” allowed voters to quickly register their preference, but unfortunately the process also made their votes public and, once deposited in the box, eligible for remuneration from the candidate with the deepest pockets and fewest scruples.

Kentucky’s mandate of a secret ballot in 1891 sought to diminish opportunities for fraud, but concern remained for the then-large number of voters who were unable to read.  Accordingly, the state’s election law of 1892 prescribed the steps by which candidates, whether nominated by a party or put forward by petition, could appear on a ballot: in addition to “a brief name or title of the party or principle which said candidates represent,” they were to include “any simple figure or device by which they shall be designated on the ballots.”  It could be “any appropriate symbol,” with a few exceptions: “the coat-of-arms or seal of the State or of the United States, the national flag, or any other emblem common to the people at large, shall not be used as such device.” 

In October 1901, the Warren County, Kentucky clerk received instructions from Secretary of State Caleb Breckinridge Hill for balloting in the forthcoming state and local elections.  As long as each of four parties had at least one candidate entitled to appear, their devices were to be shown as follows: “a game cock in the act of crowing” for the Democrats; a “Log Cabin” for the Republicans; “the Plow and Hammer” for the People’s Party; and “a Phoenix” for the Prohibition Party.  The ballot should further display beneath each emblem the prescribed large circle in which voters could place an “X” indicating their endorsement of the straight party ticket.  From there, it was up to the voters.  Left to their own devices, on November 5 the county gave the Democratic ticket the lion’s share (or rooster’s, perhaps?) of 2,920 votes cast.      

These ballot instructions to the Warren County Clerk are found in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For other collections on elections and balloting, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat

P. S. Need help this year?  Check your ballot. . . the “devices” are still there!

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“I have only a few suggestions”

“Pete,” by Dorothy Grider

Bowling Green native Dorothy Grider (1915-2012) wasn’t even out of high school before she began summer studies at the Phoenix Art Institute in New York.  To earn a scholarship to the Institute after her freshman year at WKU, she submitted a portrait of “Pete,” a local African-American man known for his expertise with foxhounds.  Today, it’s in the collections of the Kentucky Museum at WKU.

Grider would go on to enjoy decades of success as a commercial illustrator, especially of activity, coloring and story books for children.  She had a long relationship with the publisher Rand McNally, which featured her work in some of its most popular titles.  Not only did her drawings of adorable puppies, bunnies and kittens delight children, her rendering of an earth mover in the story The Busy Bulldozer earned kudos from an employee of the Caterpillar Tractor Company.

When it came to children’s books, however, Grider’s artistic license was necessarily more circumscribed, subject not only to the commercial exigencies of the day but to the cultural assumptions and prejudices of the 1950s.  Grider’s drawings for books like Our Auto Trip invariably featured children and families that were nuclear, middle-class, and almost incandescently white.  Editorial scrutiny of artwork that strayed from this baseline was unforgiving.  “PLEASE MISS GRIDER,” Rand McNally implored after an examination of The Busy Bulldozer, “WILL YOU SEE TO IT THAT YOUR SKIN TONES THROUGHOUT THIS BOOK ARE CLEAN-LOOKING AND LIGHT?”  Once “heavied up” by the lithographer, “skins with this dark a cast” ended up looking—well, non-Caucasian. 

The Unbearable Whiteness of Reading? 1950s children’s books by Dorothy Grider

Other content besides skin color worried Family Films of Hollywood, which vetted Grider’s drawings for a filmstrip called We Go to Church with an eye to the sensibilities of its religious audience.  “In order to please some of the denominations who take a dim view of stimulants,” the editor suggested removing a coffee pot from the family breakfast table and replacing the parents’ cups of coffee with cocoa.  Similarly, the “little white gloves” worn by the young daughter were “real cute and stylish,” but perhaps “a little too ‘sophisticated’” for attendance at an average church kindergarten.

By 1970, however, the “D-word” (diversity) was creeping into Rand McNally’s thinking.  The company sent Grider a script for Hoppity Skip, a new addition to its Start-Right Elf educational series, and asked if she’d be interested in the work.  “We’d like a sprinkling of the other races introduced,” were its rather timid instructions, “perhaps a Negro, Oriental, Puerto Rican. . . .”  The dam was breaking, but Grider’s work nevertheless remained subject to the formula that makes all such creatives pull out their hair: an editor’s message of fulsome praise, followed by the dreaded words “I have only a few suggestions. . . .”

Dorothy Grider

Dorothy Grider’s papers and artwork are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  To see more of our holdings of her books and artwork, search KenCat.

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“A rich morsel to roll under their tongues”

Like many young couples in the 19th century, they courted through their letters.  After they met early in 1880, Nellie Gates, 24, of Calhoun, Kentucky and Robert Coleman “Coley” Duncan, 26, began a correspondence.  Their face-to-face time was limited, as Coley’s travels selling for a wholesale grocer regularly took him to communities along the Green and Barren rivers between Calhoun and Bowling Green.

Coley’s letters covered the usual topics: gossip about their mutual friends, his reading, his travel accommodations, and plans for their next meeting.  He also expressed some envy of potential rivals for Nellie’s affection, and urged her to ignore warnings from old flames about his suitability as a correspondent.  Nellie’s replies must have been encouraging, for by late 1880 he had declared his love and by early 1881 they were engaged.

The couple tried to keep their plans to themselves, but when Coley boarded the Evansville and Green River packet steamboat to make his sales rounds, he found himself warding off the curiosity of one particular onlooker: the captain, Elmore Bewley, who knew not only Coley but many of the region’s young people through their leisure travel on his craft.  “Capt B. told me as I came up the river,” he wrote Nellie, “that he had seen you that day and went on with the usual compliments he pays you whenever he speaks of you to me.”  A few months later, Coley expressed his annoyance to Nellie after Bewley asked him if their engagement “was not satisfactorily settled. . . . He looked at me like he knew all about it.”  When Coley insisted that Nellie had given him the brush-off, Bewley “didn’t believe it and was going to ask you about it.”

But pointed questioning wasn’t his only device.  Bewley’s sleuthing skills were enhanced by the fact that his boat also carried the area mail.  Coley was reluctant to post too many letters on board “because those steamboat men are such accomplished talkers.  They all see the letters – know just who corresponds and make that the topic for their remarks to the public.”  Visiting the boat’s mail room, Coley himself had spotted a letter addressed to one of his friends “in a lady’s handwriting.”  As far as his own correspondence, he declared that if he were to mail a letter to Nellie “two Saturdays in succession,” he would be handing the boatmen “a rich morsel to roll under their tongues.”

Ultimately, the stress of controlling public perceptions of their relationship, combined with a host of other insecurities and misunderstandings, were too much for Coley, and he broke it off with Nellie a little more than a year later.  How Captain Bewley took the news is unknown, but it’s possible he figured out – even before the principals did – that the affair had “sunk.”

Robert Coleman Duncan’s letters to Nellie Gates are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more courtship letters, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Let Us Serenade You

Making sweet music. . .

They were late-night, improvised musical events that captured the romantic imaginations of nineteenth-century students, particularly those at Southern women’s colleges.  At Bowling Green’s Potter College for Young Ladies (located where WKU’s Cherry Hall now stands), these “midnight serenades,” courtesy of the boys at Ogden College just down the hill, featured a group of admirers sneaking on campus to croon up at the windows such old-time standards as “Swanee River,” “On the Banks of the Wabash,” and “Home Sweet Home.”  Even the rumor of a forthcoming performance would stir excitement among the girls and consternation among their live-in teachers, whose job it was to shoo the interlopers off the grounds.

But at Cumberland Female College in McMinnville, Tennessee, serenades attracted more participants than just the parties to an exaggerated courtship ritual.  While staying with her aunt Josephine and uncle Joseph P. Hamilton, a teacher at the college, young May Hamilton told her grandmother about the previous night’s music.  “Just as I started to bed I thought I heard serenaders up at the college,” she wrote in a letter, “and so I went & sat down on the floor by the window to listen.”  The performers, however, were not ardent young males but “the girls of the college. . . making sweet music” nearby for one of the professors and his family.  His appearance at the door to thank the performers must have emboldened them, for the troupe then marched down to the Hamilton household.  “One of the girls plays the banjo & several had harps,” wrote May, who woke up another boarder at the house so they could both enjoy the “lovely” melodies.

Luckily, the night’s entertainment was not over.  The strains of more music came through the window, but the darkness concealed the identity of the players, who then proceeded up to the college.  May learned the next morning that the group consisted of four or five African-American youths who “go around that way often up here.”  So popular had they become, in fact, that the girl boarding at May’s house knew the group by the sound of their instruments, and even knew the horn player by name.  The local custom, it seemed, was for everyone so inclined to reach out and say goodnight with a song. 

May Hamilton’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Ambitious Women and Postmasters

In summer 1913, life was becoming intolerable for Nannie England.  The 35-year-old Bardstown native had lost her husband Alfred to tuberculosis two years earlier, her 11-year-old son Edward had just been accidentally killed in a dynamite explosion, and the mortgage on her home was in default.  But Nannie, described as “refined, cultivated and capable,” was determined to support herself and her three surviving children by becoming the next postmaster of Lebanon, Kentucky.

The incumbent postmaster was due to leave office in April 1914, and the vacancy would be filled by President Woodrow Wilson upon the recommendation of Ben Johnson, the member of Congress for Nannie’s district.  The good news for Nannie: Ben Johnson happened to be her cousin.  The bad news: Johnson had already given his early and public endorsement of local farmer John B. Wathen for the position. 

Congressman Johnson explained his quandary in a letter to Nannie.  Having extended his support for Wathen, he was loath to pull the endorsement or even walk it back to some milder expression of goodwill.  Furthermore, President Wilson was unlikely to approve her appointment since he was “discouraging nepotism to the fullest extent that he can.”  Johnson encouraged Nannie to take the civil service exam, then pursue some other position in the postal or internal revenue service.

Completely undeterred, Nannie and a large circle of loyalists began a ferocious campaign to gain Johnson’s surrender.  Her letters implored him to “lift me and my babies out of the mire, where we have been struggling ever since the death of my husband.”  Referring to her rival, she declared “I am as competent as Mr. Wathen” to hold the position.  She presented a petition signed by most of the patrons of the Lebanon post office, and warned Johnson of the political fallout that would arise from his neglect of the popular will.  She gathered letters of endorsement from Lebanon’s business community and even from members of Wathen’s family, who claimed that his misplaced ambition, unpopularity with the locals, and mistreatment of his children disqualified him from consideration.  Nannie suggested that Johnson find some other emolument for Wathen, knowing “so many good positions . . . that could be acceptably filled by a man, and the post office duties so peculiarly suitable to a lady.” 

As the time for filling the position drew near, Nannie and her supporters intensified their efforts.  “Her heart and soul are in this fight,” wrote one of her backers.  Nannie appealed to Johnson’s wife (“cousin Annie”) and to her Senator, Ollie James, to bring some pressure on the Congressman.  She asked to meet personally with the Postmaster General in Washington, D.C. before the appointment was made.  The beleaguered Johnson, now hopelessly boxed in by his premature endorsement, was even presented with another scheme by one of Nannie’s allies: that he make her Postmaster and mollify Wathen by appointing Wathen’s daughter Edith, a capable young woman who had recently passed the civil service exam, as her “first assistant.” (One wonders how much Nannie knew of this proposal since it would have involved dividing the salary 50-50, an unlikely compromise for two male candidates.)

Alas, the story has an all-too-familiar ending.  In spite of Nannie’s spirited campaign, John Wathen became Lebanon’s postmaster and remained there for more than a decade.

Correspondence regarding Nannie England’s application for Postmaster is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Closings and Reopenings

His letter written 158 years ago today showed the 22-year-old negotiating life in fits and starts. 

“People have not yet gained full confidence”

After graduating from New York’s Hamilton College in 1859, Hector Voltaire Loving had returned to his home town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.  For the next year, he confessed in a letter to a classmate, “I did nothing but run around and enjoy myself,” hoping that such leisure would allow him to “build up my health and strength.” 

Finally, Hector roused himself to begin law studies in Louisville, but at the close of the 1861 school year returned again to Bowling Green to find the city in turmoil.  Civil war was bearing down on Kentucky, “the public mind was very much excited,” and “discussions were growing very violent.”  The young man was repelled by the “storm of fanaticism and treason” and by “the secessionists in our midst, who sugar coated their treason with the euphonious title of ‘Southern Rights.’”  Despite growing intimidation by rebel troops who “strolled through our town” from military encampments across the Tennessee line, he had resolved to speak out against the “Secesh.”

After the Confederates occupied Bowling Green in September 1861, however, Southern sympathizers gained “unlimited license.”  Hector’s father, worried that his son would be forced into the ranks of the rebel army, had urged him to make his way back to Louisville and finish his law degree.  Hector succeeded, only to come home again early in 1862 just after “the evacuation of this place by the Rebels” had ended the occupation.  He was dismayed at the state of “my once beautiful town.”  Bowling Green was left “partially burned, many of the fences totally destroyed, almost all of the beautiful groves cut down, and the sidewalks and streets in a very filthy condition.” 

Fortunately, wrote Hector, a clean-up effort and some cleansing rains had now restored the city to “much of its former attractiveness.”  He had entered into partnership with an established lawyer and even gained appointment as the town’s attorney.  “I am in a position to do very well and enjoy myself when the war is over,” he declared, but was still conscious that “owing to the uncertain condition of affairs and the feverish excitement constantly prevailing people have not yet gained full confidence.”  Indeed, there was much to be resolved about the comeback.  The Confederates had been driven no farther away than Tennessee.  Hector’s own father, a prominent lawyer, legislator and judge, maintained enslaved labor on his farm.  And another of Hector’s Hamilton College classmates was back home in Bowling Green, too, planning to go North to law school despite being a “very violent ‘Secesh.’”

A finding aid and typescript of Hector V. Loving’s letter can be accessed by clicking here.  For more collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Teacher’s Watch

“We are very dependent creatures”

It was just after 10 o’clock on a July evening in 1899 when Roland Patterson started a letter to his parents.  He sketched a peaceful picture.  He was seated in a large rocking chair, with a “sweet quiet pervading the room” – no sounds except for the ticking of a clock, the embers of a fire lit to drive away the dampness of three days’ rain, and the “occasional low of a friendly old cow” outside.  Patterson had just returned to Barren County, Kentucky to reopen his small rural school.  He was boarding with a “good, kind, and intelligent family” consisting of  a “tall, rather stooped, dark complected man about 38 years old,” his wife, “a pleasant lady of about thirty,” and their children, including a son, Hermon.

But Patterson’s duties that evening extended beyond preparing for the classroom.  Like others in the community, young Hermon had been visited by malarial fever a few days earlier.  As he worsened, the fearful family called for one doctor, then another, but Hermon slowly began to recover.  Now, Patterson was sitting up as his “night watchman” while the parents and one of the doctors, the boy’s own grandfather, slept nearby. 

Patterson had opened his school on the same day Hermon fell ill, but his sense of dread about his own prospects had been allayed when he found 47 young scholars waiting for him.  “I am well and getting along as well as ever in life,” he assured his parents.  Now, “amidst this quietude, viewing the slumbering bodies of my friends, meditating upon life and its attendant cares and responsibilities” and with Hermon’s crisis past, he was struck by one thought: “that we are very dependent creatures.”  For the devout Patterson, support came from God, “who not only watches over us in our unconscious hours of sleep, but safely bears us over life’s uneven places.”  For the sick boy and his family, however, gratitude was surely due to the young man who sat ready, as he noted, to administer the next dose of medicine in “just one hour and two minutes.”

Roland Patterson’s letter is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections. Click here to access a finding aid and typescript.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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Taking Advantage of the Fact

Civil War recruiting broadside depicting the path forward: Freedom, military victory, education, literacy, and the destruction of the flag of the “Slave Power” (Kentucky Library)

The Juneteenth celebration has its origins in the announcement delivered on June 19, 1865 by Union troops at Galveston, Texas, that “all slaves are free.”  The Confederacy’s surrender the previous April had finally put the U.S. Army in a position to enforce President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which had taken effect on January 1, 1863.

In Texas and elsewhere, according to historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Emancipation “wasn’t exactly instant magic.”  News traveled slowly, and sometimes those “who acted on the news did so at their peril.”  After 1863, nearly 200,000 African Americans enlisted in the Union Army, and others took risky steps to establish (in the words of Juneteenth.com) “a heretofore non-existent status.”

Whites could be rather flummoxed by their former slaves’ embrace of emancipation.  Shortly before the war ended, Sallie Knott observed that “Negro troops” had come to Lebanon, Kentucky to recruit.  “They have already induced many to go,” she wrote in her diary, given that “their families are free as soon as they enter the army.”  A Southern sympathizer, Sallie was nevertheless amused at the travails of a white neighbor whose slaves had all decamped.  “The Madam is cooking herself!” she snickered. “There is a little good mingled with all this evil!”  A month earlier, she had heard from her stepfather in Warren County that an enslaved member of his household had the temerity to ask “for wages!  Papa told him he’d not give his own servant [sic] wages,” but would graciously give him Saturdays off.  “I should not be surprised,” wrote Sally, to hear of the “servant’s” early departure.  Similarly, in Sherman, Texas, Patience Smith wrote to acknowledge the first letter received from her sister Emily in Tennessee “since the war broke up.”  She seemed even more disoriented by the absence of enslaved labor.  Her brother Burrell, she complained, “has not a negro on his land,” and his wife and daughter were stuck with all the work! 

Sophia, 1888

We have blogged before about the post-Emancipation odyssey of a young woman named Sophia, who for more than two decades was the mistress, housekeeper, and companion of Richard Vance, an Army officer from Warren County, Kentucky.  Vance first met Sophia in 1867 at his military station in Little Rock, Arkansas and learned her story.  When Emancipation came, she was still a young girl, and the rest of her enslaved family had already been sent away by their master to keep them from falling into the hands of the “hated yankees.”  Sophia remained in a condition of “absolute slavery” until early 1866, when local African Americans learned of their freedom “through the instrumentalities of the Freedmen’s Bureau” and “were enabled through the same agency to take advantage of that fact.”  Carrying only a bundle of ragged clothes, Sophia finally left.  Twenty years later, she enjoyed a reunion with her long-lost brother and sisters in Texas.  She found them prosperous, the owners of “farms, horses, cows, hogs, orchards, bees and all the paraphernalia of thrifty cotton growers.  This is remarkable,” wrote Vance, who had helped her locate them, “seeing that only a couple of decades since they were slaves, uneducated, pennyless, and surrounded by a hostile population.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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