Early in the 20th
century, segregated schools labored under the “separate but equal” doctrine,
which in practice relegated African-American students to underfunded and
inferior facilities. As principal of the
Simmons School of Versailles, Kentucky, Principal Thomas J. Smith struggled in
1908 to establish a department of domestic science. Seeking support from white as well as
African-American citizens, he reached out to Philip J. Noel of Bowling Green,
Kentucky, a native of Harrodsburg whose insurance business regularly brought
him to Versailles.
Smith sent Noel a solicitation card that outlined the aims of the department. Among them: “To teach the girls the dignity of work in the home;” “To supplement what mothers have already taught them”; “To encourage girls to care for their kitchens and stoves as for their parlors and pianos;” and “To teach the most healthful methods of preparing common foods.” Fifty girls in three classes received instruction in music and drawing as well as cookery.
With lumber supplied by the school board, Smith had planned and constructed a practice kitchen and dining room, but domestic science, of course, required more specialized teaching aids. Money was needed to buy the foods that the girls would practice cooking and serving, and with prices so high, Smith complained, it was difficult to keep an adequate supply on hand. As for the equipment, the program, like a country cook, had to start from scratch. “We began,” Smith wrote, “by getting an old stove from the ‘Junk Pile,’ the teacher’s platforms were made into tables, paper was used for biscuit boards and tin cans for rolling pins.”
Paducah, Kentucky’s Eighth of August Emancipation Celebration is a days-long, event-filled dive into the city’s African-American heritage. Since at least 1886, the community has been the site of an annual grand gathering to commemorate the end of slavery. The relation of August 8 to emancipation is a little uncertain, but the most popular theory is that it harkens back to the day in the 1790s when the enslaved people of Santo Domingo (Haiti) were declared to be free.
In 2008, field workers with the Kentucky Folklife Program visited Paducah to gather information about the current celebration. They took photographs and video and collected material, including a thick program highlighting that year’s theme “A Journey By Faith.” Along with sponsors’ ads and event schedules, the program features memorials, announcements, and autobiographies of African-American Paducahns that chronicle their lives, achievements, and spiritual journeys. Included for that election year of 2008 was a scholarship-winning essay by a local high school senior on the topic “Is America Ready for an African-American President?”
The field workers also conducted an interview with James Dawson, a Hopkinsville native who had made his home in Paducah since 1951. He recalled hearing his grandfather talk about the celebration, which drew African Americans from all over the country. Dawson’s own memories included dances, bands, street parties, class and family reunions, and all-night merriment. He and his son helped to serve up a food staple—barbeque (Dawson’s favorite was pork or mutton)—together with fried fish and hamburgers. Unlike the old days, Dawson observed, the event had become less spontaneous, bringing in commercial food vendors and requiring committees, permits, insurance, security and all the accoutrements of modern civic existence. Nevertheless, the 2008 gathering was another successful chapter in a tradition that retains its unique place in Paducah.
A descendant’s recent donation to WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections of the letters and papers of the Weirs, a prominent 19th-century Muhlenberg County, Kentucky family, has provided rich insights into the Civil War history of that county (here and here, for example). Another wonderful item in this collection is the journal of patriarch James Weir (1777-1845), who emigrated to Muhlenberg County from South Carolina. En route in 1798, Weir sojourned in Knoxville, Tennessee and taught school for several months.
Shortly after posting our collection finding aid on TopSCHOLAR, we received an inquiry about the Weir journal from Knoxville librarian Steve Cotham. He had seen excerpts in typescript, but was interested in the original because it was long thought to contain “the first reference to African American banjo music” in that part of Tennessee. Indeed, James Weir’s journal has been cited several times as the source for this interesting tidbit of musical history.
Having only recently processed the collection, however, we knew something was amiss. Arriving in Knoxville on County Court day, the pious Weir had written that he found a rollicking town, “Confus[e]d with a promiscuous throng of every denomination some Talked some sung but mostly all did profainly sware – I stood ag[h]ast,” he declared, “my soul shrunk back to hear the horrid oaths and dreadful Indignities offered to the supream Governer of the universe.” Weir was further mortified to witness “dancing singing & playing of Cards,” and on a Sunday, no less.
It’s a vivid portrait of a frontier community, but nowhere in Weir’s description is there a reference to either African Americans or banjos. So how did this source become part of the body of scholarship on African American banjo music?
Here’s what probably happened:
In 1913, Greenville, Kentucky’s Otto Rothert gained access to the journal when he wrote about the Weir family in his book A History of Muhlenberg County. He quoted accurately from its pages, with only minor edits for spelling and punctuation. But then along came Robert M. Coates with his 1930 book The Outlaw Years: The History of the Land Pirates of the Natchez Trace. Writing of the notorious Harpe brothers and their criminal exploits in Knoxville, Coates used James Weir as a source for his portrait of the city. In what looked deceptively like a paraphrase of a passage from the journal, Coates declared that Weir saw “men jostling, singing, swearing; women yelling from the doorways; half-naked n—–s playing on their ‘banjies’ while the crowd whooped and danced around them.” Mixing quotation and invention, Coates continued: “The town was confused with a promiscuous throng of every denomination”—blanket-clad Indians, leather-shirted woodsmen, gamblers, hard-eyed and vigilant — “My soul shrank back.”
This embellished version of Weir’s journal, including the sudden appearance of “banjies,” took on a life of its own. The reference was picked up in 1939 by the Federal Writers’ Project in Tennessee: A Guide to the State (where the racial epithet was changed to “Negroes”). It appeared again in Cecelia Conway’s African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia (1995) and in George R. Gibson’s 2001 article “Gourd Banjos: From Africa to the Appalachians.” With the original Weir journal in private hands until only recently, it was perhaps impossible for scholars to locate and check the original; in any event, the colorful prose of Coates, who spent most of his career as a novelist and art critic, must have been too good to overlook. The story of the banjies-that-never-were is a lesson for all historical researchers: whenever possible, go straight to the source. And with James Weir’s journal in our collection, now they can.
Click here for a finding aid to the Weir Family Collection. For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.
On September 22, 1862, President Lincoln placed pen to
paper and wrote the following executive order,
“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
As an authoritative wartime measure, the Emancipation Proclamation granted freedom to more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans who remained under control by the Confederate government in ten southern states—not including the “border states” and those already under Union occupation.
While the proclamation, which was contingent upon a Union victory, may have ignited a firestorm of criticism from white southern sympathizers and praise from anti-abolitionists, its implementation was slow to take root, especially in Texas.
Seceding from the United States on
February 1, 1861, Texas became the fourth state admitted into the Confederacy. Throughout
the course of the Civil War, slaveholders from eastern states, notably Arkansas
and Louisiana, routinely brought slaves to Texas in order to avoid
emancipation, which significantly increased the number of slaves across the
state. When the Emancipation Proclamation was made official in 1863, however,
it took nearly two and a half years before the order was enforced. While theories
abound in order to explain this severe lag—ranging from murder to deliberate
miscommunication—history itself is quite clear.
On June 19, 1865, Union Army General
Gordon Granger and his troops landed on the beaches of Galveston Island and
declared Texas under federal occupation. Granger read Lincoln’s executive order,
thereby liberating the nearly 250,000 slaves living in Texas. “Juneteenth,”
then, has come to be recognized as the “traditional end of slavery in Texas.” The
day has become established as a state-recognized holiday, while other states
may observe Juneteenth in other forms of ceremonial remembrance. The
underpinnings of Juneteenth rest on the celebration of Black pride, solidarity,
and cultural heritage.
Akin to Juneteenth festivities, the 8th of
August is another emancipation-related holiday observed by African American
communities in both western Kentucky and Tennessee. While the reasons for
celebrating August 8th remain unclear, the lasting impact it has had on the
region is decidedly obvious. Every year, the city of Paducah, Kentucky hosts
its 8th of August Homecoming Emancipation Celebration. The Homecoming seeks to
honor exceptional members of the African American community, both past and
present, through memorial services, picnics, music performances, and church assemblies.
WKU’s Manuscripts and
Folklife Archives contains a collection (FA 635) of
materials gathered together from Paducah’s 2008 8th of August Homecoming
Emancipation Celebration titled “A Journey by Faith.” In his program
introduction, Robert Coleman, President of the W.C. Young Community Center
Board of Directors, writes,
“America’s struggle, rise, and triumph from slavery to equal rights for all is a living testament to the power of deep, personal faith for Americans of all colors. That deep well of faith from the darkest days of slavery sets the African American experience of religion apart.”
The program itself includes articles describing
the accomplishments of distinguished members of the Black community,
advertisements for local businesses and churches, and a schedule of the weekend’s
events. The collection also contains photographs of the celebration, vendor
information, business cards, and two interviews with James Dawson, a member of
the First Liberty Missionary Baptist Church, that were recorded on digital videocassette
For more information on African American folklore, material
culture, foodways, and achievements throughout the state of Kentucky and beyond,
or browse through KenCat,
a searchable database featuring manuscripts, photographs, and other non-book
objects housed in the Department of Library Special Collections!
Post written by WKU
Folk Studies graduate student Delainey Bowers
Comments Off on 8th of August Emancipation Celebration
Although he had retired in 1892, Civil War veteran and
Warren County, Kentucky native Captain Richard Vance took great interest in all
aspects of his country’s prosecution of the Spanish-American War. Among the topics covered in his personal scrapbooks,
letters and essays was the plight of American soldiers who had volunteered for
the war only to be met with disease, poor camp conditions, and substandard food
and medical treatment.
For African-American soldiers, Vance realized that the
conditions were far worse. He noted
that, in spite of their outstanding gallantry, African-American troops could
not escape the racism of their white counterparts; in particular they “continued
to be despised objects in the estimation of southern volunteers.” Vance cited an example in which “certain
Virginia gentlemen (volunteers) refused to receive their pay because it was
offered to them by a Negro paymaster.”
He had heard stories of “disorders” in some African-American regiments,
but dismissed them as no worse than those in other volunteer
organizations. His own long military
experience had taught him “that the ‘white-washing’ process is invariably used
in such cases.”
Vance included clippings in his scrapbook to illustrate his
points. During the fierce battle around
Santiago, Cuba, read one report, African-American soldiers not only “fought
like devils” but came to the aid of the wounded, and when wounded themselves showed
“more nerve” under the surgeon’s knife “than many of their fellow soldiers of
lighter hue.” When the men returned
home, Louisville, Kentucky offered cheers for the 10th Cavalry—“The
Colored Heroes of San Juan Hill”—but as the troop trains passed through
Richmond, Texas and Meridian, Mississippi, they were targeted with gunfire. When Charles Mason Mitchell, a veteran of
Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, attempted to pay tribute to the bravery of
his African-American comrades during a lecture in Richmond, Virginia, he was
booed off the stage. “Is there a remedy
for these evils?” asked Vance.
“Yes. Unquestionably. Will it ever be applied? That remains to be seen.”
As we have seen, Edward R. Weir, Sr. (1816-1891) of Greenville, Kentucky took an active role in advocating, arming and funding the Union cause during the Civil War. His entire family, in fact, opposed secession. Weir’s wife Harriet defiantly nailed the U.S. flag to a tree when Confederate Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner toured Muhlenberg County. Weir’s daughter Anna helped raise volunteer home guards and made pocket needle-and-thread cases for soldiers’ kits. Weir’s son Edward, Jr. served as an officer in two Kentucky infantry regiments, and saw action at Shiloh, Corinth, and Saltville, Virginia.
But Edward Weir Sr. was also the owner of some 100 slaves,
and therein lies the tale of another family.
Weir’s youngest son Miller (1859-1935) recalled the patriarch of this
family, known as “Copper John.” Copper John’s
daughter Amy was Miller’s nurse and maid to his mother Harriet. Amy’s four sisters also worked in the Weir
mansion, the centerpiece of a 1,200-acre plantation.
The sisters had two brothers, Silas and Jesse (or Jessey). It was the latter who, as cook, manservant
and companion, made Edward, Jr.’s life considerably more bearable after he
entered military service. Writing from
Camp Calhoun in McLean County, Edward described his tent, a spartan but
comfortable space. “I have a grand time
& live like a king all alone with Jessey,” he told his family. “I sleep on
one side & Jessey on the other,” with a small stove for warmth. His modest dinner table, with its tin cups and
plates (and one china plate “for the Captain” as Jessey said), was evidently a
source of pride and comfort for Edward. Even
when he was ill and out of sorts at Corinth, Mississippi, he boasted of
Jessey’s culinary skills and his ability to make biscuits just as good as those
With the exception of Amy, who died in Chicago, the later lives of the children of “Copper John” are unrecorded. Edward Weir, Sr., however, praised the intelligence and resourcefulness of his former slaves; one became a missionary, another attended Oberlin College, and others became teachers. And during the upheaval of the Civil War, he gratefully remembered, they “watched over me and mine, with a devotion which I shall never forget.”
Abel Brothers funeral program (Kentucky Library Ephemera Collection)
In 1900, James E. Kuykendall (1874-1960), an African-American native of Butler County, Kentucky, opened a funeral home at 819 State Street in Bowling Green. For more than 50 years, he served the city’s African-American population both alone and in partnership with James A. Boyd. In the 1930s, brothers Francis and Richard Abel established Abel Brothers, which also served the same constituents.
The records of these historic African-American businesses were later placed with Gatewood and Sons Funeral Chapel, and copies are held in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections. Dating from 1900-1970, they provide data about funeral dates and expenses, but some are useful genealogical resources because they provide additional information about the deceased such as occupation, cause of death, parents’ names, and place of interment. Also included with these records is a listing of interments in Mt. Moriah, Bowling Green’s African-American cemetery.
A finding aid for these funeral home records can be accessed here. For more collections on funeral homes and other businesses, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.
“What I told you is what your grandparents tried to tell me: that this is your country, that this is your world, that this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
In the fall of 1995, four folk studies students from the Cultural Conservation class at WKU conducted an oral history project to document African American heritage in Caldwell, Christian, Todd, and Trigg counties. With grant-based funding from the Pennyrile Area Development District (PADD), local committees were established in each county, allowing interviewers to become better acquainted with long-time residents and their personal narratives, which focused on their experiences of living in Trigg County.
The student group recorded a total of 18 interviews with 15 participants, most of whom have longstanding familial ties to the region. The interviews, which often take the format of a “life history,” cover a broad range of topics from American Bandstand, sorority life, courtship customs, and bootlegging, to tobacco harvesting, family reunions, quilting bees, and church services. The scope of the project, spanning nearly five decades from the early 1900s to the late 1950s, marks an era of both agricultural and industrial growth, political uncertainty, and technological advancement—all nipping at the heels of the stirring civil rights movement.
Serving as the first oral history project of its kind in Trigg County, the lives of its participants are played out on tape in ways that reveal what it meant to be black in the Jim Crow South, how physical landscapes shape cultural traditions, and how a strong sense of identity was—and remains—crucial in developing supportive, lasting communities.
Onie Baker at her home in Cadiz, Kentucky (October 1995)
The collection itself (FA 196), located within WKU’s Manuscripts and Folklife Archives, contains photographs of participants, brief biographical sketches, original interview cassette tapes, and detailed indexes of every recorded interview.
For information on African American experiences in Kentucky, Trigg County, and additional oral history projects, visit TopSCHOLAR or browse through KenCat, a searchable database featuring manuscripts, photographs and other non-book objects housed in the Department of Library Special Collections!
Post written by WKU Folk Studies graduate student Delainey Bowers
Comments Off on Within the All of It: Trigg County African-American Oral History Project
The Department of Library Special Collections at WKU already has an impressive collection of illustrative material related to Mammoth Cave. These items include glass plate negatives, post cards, guide books, etc. A recent acquisition of a complete set Charles L. Waldack’s 1866 stereo views will greatly enhance these materials as Waldack is the first photographer of the cave. The 42 “Magnesium Light Views in Mammoth Cave” were published by E. & H.T. Anthony & Co. and include scenes of the Hotel, guests, the African American cave guides and many interior shots of cave formations. Waldack, originally from Belgium came to the United States in 1857. It was noted that he brought “sunlight” to the interior of the cave by the use of magnesium, so that one of the greatest natural wonders of the world could be seen by many. His biography from a special edition of the “Journal of Speleological History” (2000) notes: “These were the first high quality photographs produced underground in any cave. Waldack was naturalized as an American citizen after his marriage to Mary Tanner (born about 1849) of Kentucky, who was also a photographer. He set up a photography shop at 31 West 3rd Street in Cincinnati and made many excellent views of buildings, streets, and bridges between 1857 and 1873. Most important was his 42 stereo cards of Mammoth Cave. The Anthony series was continuously printed until about 1872, and 12 of the photographs were printed as engravings in the 1870 book, “A Historical and Descriptive Narrative of the Mammoth Cave of Kentucky” by William S. Forwood.
It was a domestic tragedy that devolved into a spat about domestic servants. On June 7, 1945, Sadie Brown, the longtime African-American cook of prominent Bowling Green banker Max Nahm, was arguing with a male acquaintance in the kitchen of Nahm’s home at 14th and College Streets. The argument ended when he grabbed a knife, slashed her throat, and fled.
From her State Street home a block away, Martha Potter wrote the news to her children. For most of her life, Martha, who kept boarders in her home, relied heavily on African-American domestic servants, but the past few years had been a trial. Susie Potter, her own longtime cook and maid with whom she shared a surname, had resigned in 1937, and recently the attraction of better-paying war work had made replacements scarce.
But now it was Max Nahm’s turn to experience a “servant problem.” As the local African-American community reacted in shock to Sadie’s murder, Susie told Martha of their folk beliefs regarding violent death. “Susie said that murder blood was hard to wash out and that if it wasn’t washed up before the victim’s death it never would come out,” Martha informed her children. Sally, her current cook, had agreed, adding that “every time there is a thunderstorm that spot will come back.”
A few weeks later, Susie herself was cooking for Nahm, but his search for live-in help remained futile because no servant was willing to stay overnight in the house. Then Susie became ill, and she and Martha made a secret pact: after Susie’s recovery, she would return to work for Martha, not for Nahm.
The conspiracy continued through the fall of 1946, with Martha confiding to her children that “Max still says she is coming to work for him.” When Susie finally rejoined Martha’s household in spring 1947, Nahm “got mighty mad,” but Martha haughtily denied having “stolen” his cook. Although he found a replacement, the 84-year-old banker nursed a grudge that Martha attributed solely to ego. “Max is still pouting with me about Susie,” Martha wrote in June 1948–a full three years after Sadie Brown’s tragic death in his kitchen.