Russellville is home to the SEEK Museum at Bibb House, a museum that chronicles, as the acronym reflects, Struggles for Emancipation and Equality in Kentucky. The Bibb House itself is an artifact of America’s history of slavery.
“Even though it’s a beautiful home, has interesting architecture, had some nice furnishings, those things are so minimal compared to the real story of what happened here,” says Gran Clark of Historic Russellville, Inc. “That was the story of enslavement and emancipation.”
The house was built in the 1810s by Major Richard Bibb for his second wife, says Michael Morrow of the SEEK Museum.
“By 1815 until his death in 1839, he ran it as what you would call an urban plantation,” says Morrow. “He had slaves here. He had gardeners, he had blacksmiths, he had people here who kept the plantation functioning.”
Clark says that Bibb owned slaves for nearly his entire life, beginning in 1769 when he inherited enslaved people owned by his father. Although he was believed to hold abolitionist views, Bibb didn’t free his own slaves during his lifetime.
“He was deeply religious. Was, by family folklore, always anti-slavery,” says Clark. “But it wasn’t until 1839 when he died that he actually freed his slaves. So you’ve got a span of 70 years where we feel like there was this internal struggle between what kind of person he was and what kind of person he wanted to be.”
Bibb arranged to have his slaves given their freedom upon his death.
“He freed 65 slaves,” says Morrow. “He gave them $5,000. He gave them land, farming implements and everything.”
Most of those freed people stayed in the area and worked to build lives in a country that continued to oppress them despite their “free” status.
“They lived on that property, but they actually didn’t receive a deed until over 40 years later,” says Clark. “It was the 1880s before that deed was given to them. Many of them had already died. They had a difficult time being free people in a world with slavery.”
The freed people from the Bibb plantation took the Bibb name. Morrow was able to track ancestry and descendants of Maj. Bibb and of the people he kept as slaves, and the SEEK Museum recently hosted a kind of family reunion that brought the Bibb descendants together.
“The event is to visit where our ancestors were enslaved,” says reunion attendee Tierney Bibbs Anderson. “I’ve been in [the house] and it’s brought up a lot of mixed emotions. It’s not about being angry. It’s about knowing who you are and using who you are to know where you’re going.”
“Last year, I had my mom and dad do an Ancestry DNA test,” says Marvin Vaughn, a Bibb descendant. “Just this past April or March, we got a letter from Michael Morrow telling us that there’s going to be a reunion, and the potential of finding what would be our ‘white’ side of the family.”
The reunion opened up conversations about a painful component of America’s history, and Morrow says the event created some important connections.
“We had tables out in the yard,” says Morrow. “That’s where we were eating, and that’s where everybody was at. It rained, and it forced everybody into the house. Then they got to talking with each other. When the rain was over, it seemed like the whole atmosphere changed. And things just came together.”
This segment is part of Kentucky Life season 25, episode 11. Watch the full episode.