old woodcut image of the Kentucky River

A Teacher’s Guide to

Kentucky’s Story

A nine-part Kentucky history series for grades 4 and 5, produced by KET.

See our online ITV catalog  for upcoming broadcasts and additional information for teachers.

Slavery in Kentucky

Program Goal

Students will recognize and discuss many of the problems and conflicts associated with slavery.

Program Summary

Although slave life in Kentucky may not have been as bad as in other areas of the South, it was still degrading and dehumanizing, splitting families and depriving people of their rights and freedom. In Program 5, a white family takes a "playboy" (playmate) for their son. In the process, both black and white families experience doubts and fears about the merits and evils of the situation and the elder son of the black family decides to take his chances and flee via the Underground Railroad to Canada.

Historical Background

Slavery in Kentucky (1780-1820)

By the middle of the 19th century, Kentucky's population numbered nearly one million. About twenty-one percent of these residents were slaves-black men, women, and children bound, in perpetuity, in involuntary servitude. Slaves lived in every county across the state, with the greatest concentration in the Bluegrass Region and the least number in the mountain counties.

From Kentucky's inception, black Americans played a crucial role in the state's development. A few early settlers brought slaves to the commonwealth, for the frontier needed a large, cheap labor force to clear the land and build homes, barns, fences, and other necessities. But once the wilderness was tamed, slave labor ceased to be profitable. Most Kentuckians owned small farms, and neither the climate nor the agricultural conditions were suitable to year-round use of a large labor force. Because slaves could not be discharged or let go as free laborers could, and because their maintenance expenses remained the same whether they worked or were idle, some owners hired out surplus slaves to neighbors who needed extra hands for a brief time. Other slaves were exported to the Deep South to raise cotton and sugar cane. The selling of slaves and the resulting destruction of family units was one of the most odious facets of Southern life.

About one out of every three Kentucky families owned slaves, but the average number per owner remained small-about five (the average in the Deep South was ten). Because many owners and servants worked side by side or had frequent contact, the bond between them was more patriarchal than was the relationship shared by slaves and masters in other states. While exceptions can be noted, it is generally believed that Kentucky's slaves experienced a less harsh life than did those living elsewhere. Yet even at its best, slavery was a degrading, restrictive institution.

Many aspects of the slaves' lives resembled those of white laborers. The workday extended from sunup to sundown, six days a week. Slaves produced much of the state's cash crops (corn, hemp, tobacco, livestock), served as domestic servants, and were employed in a variety of trades and urban industries. The mainstay of their diet was meat, meal and molasses, but these items were supplemented by vegetables the slaves cultivated themselves along with the game they took in their free time. In addition to these evening and Sunday activities, masters encouraged their chattels to engage in recreational activities, such as dancing and singing, that provided emotional release; happy slaves worked better than did discontented ones.

Religion also played an important role in the slaves' existence. Churches encouraged masters to treat their people kindly and urged slaves to be good Christians, to serve their earthly masters as they would their heavenly father and to look for rewards in the hereafter for services rendered on earth. Slaves learned Bible stories but few could read the Holy Book, for literacy was considered undesirable, even dangerous. A few, who served as playmates to young masters, attended classes with their white companions and thus learned to read and write. But most slaves had no opportunity for schooling. Southerners feared that educated blacks might read seditious literature prepared by northern abolitionists and be encouraged by such writings to rebel or run away.

A slave's treatment depended on the personality, conscience and economic resources of his masters. Well fed, happy slaves generally were more productive than mistreated ones, and docile slaves generally received good treatment. But even benevolent masters punished those who disobeyed, worked too slowly, or ran away. The kind and degree of punishment depended on the owner. Chronic troublemakers might be sold-and the threat of being sold undoubtedly was a greater deterrent than the threat of bodily harm. Nevertheless, because slaves represented sizeable investments of money and because injuries or incapacities meant financial losses, a slave's economic worth served as his greatest protection from ill-tempered masters.

For nearly three quarters of a century, Kentuckians argued the pros and cons of slavery. Its supporters insisted that slave labor was sanctioned by the Bible and that it was an economically sound system, providing large profits and a great amount of leisure for the white owner. It was, many argued, a way of life. Opponents of the institution stressed that slavery was a social, political, economic, and moral evil, in violation of a fundamental on which the nation was founded-the human right to freedom.

Pre-statehood opposition to the institution was led by David Rice, a Presbyterian minister who never freed his own slaves. Rice argued that God created men to be free and warned that by denying freedom to a segment of the population, Kentucky would create a group whose interests lay in subverting the government. Rice also insisted that slavery encouraged idleness and corrupted the morals of the white youths. But the delegates to the state's first constitutional convention ignored Rice's warnings. The document they fashioned provided a legal base for slavery and prohibited the legislature from emancipating slaves without the consent of the owners or without compensating them for their economic loss. Various church leaders and their congregations denounced the institution and urged slave owners to emancipate their bondsmen, but their efforts came to naught. In an attempt to prevent denominational schisms (the Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians did eventually split over the issue), the churches adopted a neutral stand, proclaiming that slavery was a political issue rather than a religious one. Thereafter they concentrated their efforts on eliminating the harsher aspects of bondage and on teaching the joys of Christianity to those in servitude.

The major barrier encountered by those who advocated emancipation was the Southerners' prejudices against free blacks. Poor white farmers, tradesmen and small businessmen feared that freed men constituted a threat to their jobs; slave owners believed the presence of free blacks increased discontentment among those still in bondage, causing them to revolt or flee. To alleviate these apprehensions, most opponents of slavery urged emancipation and colonization in Liberia. But the transportation expenses involved and the slaves' reluctance to go to an unknown land across the sea doomed the scheme. In the thirty years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, the Kentucky Colonization Society sent 658 blacks from Kentucky to Liberia; still, in 1860 more than 225,000 blacks remained in bondage in Kentucky.

Many prominent Kentuckians publicly opposed slavery. Henry Clay, a slave owner, served as president of the American Colonization Society but refused to interfere with the property rights of owners. Lexington's Robert J. Breckenridge held a series of fiery debates with a pro slavery advocate and urged that money be raised to support the colonization society's activities by placing a head tax on slaves. Senator Joseph Rogers Underwood of Bowling Green, who sent several families of his slaves to Liberia, suggested that funds could be raised to meet the expenses of colonization if slaves were hired out for one year before "returning" to Africa. But the most colorful opponent of slavery was Cassius Marcallus Clay of Madison County. Believing slavery was as harmful to the white man as to the black, Clay urged slave owners (a sizeable majority in the state) to vote together to abolish the institution. In 1845 "Cash" Clay established an anti-slavery newspaper in Lexington. The True American was devoted to the cause of gradual and constitutional emancipation and appealed to the economic self-interests of non-owners. But the paper was an affront to local slave owners and set off a chorus of protests. It survived about three months. Taking advantage of Clay's illness, an indignant mob broke into his heavily armed newspaper shop, dismantled his press, and shipped it to Cincinnati. Clay did not try to reestablish his paper in Kentucky, but he continued to speak out against slavery.

Because they squabbled among themselves rather than uniting their energies, the efforts of the anti-slavery white population did little to rescue hapless victims from bondage. The bulk of those who escaped the system did so by their own efforts. A few won their freedom through meritorious acts or managed to find some means of earning money and saved enough to purchase their freedom. Others fled: it is estimated that about 300 slaves escaped from Kentucky into free states each year.

Slave owners tried to convince themselves that most slaves were happy, but the number who ran away proved otherwise. Aided by a loosely organized network of agents and stations called the Underground Railroad, these runaways hid by day and traveled by night, hoping to cross the Ohio River. But not until they got to Canada were they really free. Federal law instructed that fugitive slaves be returned to their masters. Those found guilty of aiding escapees could be sent to prison. Josiah Henson (believed to be the model for Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous book) was among the Kentucky slaves who fled. Henson, his wife, and two children crossed the Ohio River near Owensboro and spent two weeks walking to Cincinnati, where they secured help and made travel arrangements to Canada. Henson later made numerous return visits to Kentucky, helping 118 others escape.

Despite the efforts of numerous well-intentioned Kentuckians who found slavery an offensive, undemocratic institution, none were effective in eradicating the system. Nor did Lincoln's famous Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 free the commonwealth's slaves, for it applied only to those states or areas in rebellion, and Kentucky remained a loyal Union state throughout the Civil War. Nevertheless, the proclamation foreshadowed the end to this system of human bondage. The Thirteenth Amendment, ratified in December of 1865, decreed that "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude... shall exist within the United States.... "

Suggested Activities

  1. Divide the class into two groups.For half the day permit one group to enjoy a variety of privileges and to set restrictive rules which the other group must obey (e.g., do all the cleanups, address the others as Miss or Master, never speak unless spoken to, work instead of play during recess, etc.) Then reverse the groups. Have each group express their feelings on this form of servitude.
  2. Learn several Negro spirituals. Discuss with the class the role music played in the lives of the antebellum Negro and how the words to these songs expressed their feelings about servitude. Review the words to My Old Kentucky Home. What does this song tell you about life in Kentucky?
  3. Imagine you are a slave owner who will soon send a family of slaves to Liberia. What tools, household goods, etc. should they take? How much will these items cost? Using today's prices and minimum wages, how long would a slave have to work to earn enough money to reim? burse you for these items and for his passage to Liberia?
  4. Write a story about a young runaway slave. Include the hardships, dangers, and fears he faces in trying to escape from Kentucky to Cincinnati and then Canada.
  5. Many of the charming old stone walls still found in rural Kentucky were built by slaves. Using small pebbles and mortar, build a stone wall. Use the wall in a diorama that includes a slave cabin and the master's home.
  6. Imagine you are going to be sold and be separated from your family. You do not know where you will go, who will buy you, what kind of work you will be doing, or how you will be treated. How do you feel? What would you do to escape? Why or why not?

Web Picks


*Harrison, Lowell H.
Antislavery Movement in Kentucky
Lexington, 1978
Memories of Slavery Days in Kentucky
Filson Club History Quarterly, 47 (July 1973), pp. 242-257
Not Quite Free
American History Illustrated, LX (June 1974), pp. 12-19

Gara, Larry
The Myth of the Underground Railroad
American History Illustrated, 12 (January 1978), pp. 34-41

*Richardson, H. Edward
Cassius Marcellus Clay: Firebrand of Freedom
Lexington, 1976.

*Denotes books from The Kentucky Bicentennial Bookshelf series.