Reconstruction/Readjustment:  Side 1

The United States faced two fundamental tasks during the Reconstruction period (1865-1877).  One was the need to redefine and renormalize relations between the former Confederate states and the rest of the nation.  The other was to redefine the role of race, the meaning of freedom and the place of African Americans in a society in which slavery was no longer legal and in which those formerly enslaved were presumably free and equal.  Kentucky was often at odds with national policy during this tumultuous time.

Nearly as soon as slavery ended, Kentucky attempted to limit the meaning of black freedom by prohibiting African Americans from testifying in court, serving on juries and voting.  Miscegenation was outlawed.  Schools were segregated, if there were schools at all.  Tax rolls, schools and marriage and other public records were separated by race.  Blacks were subject to more severe penalties for various crimes than were whites.  Economic opportunities available to African Americans were restricted to menial, domestic or agricultural labor.  Lynching was widespread, particularly in the Bluegrass region and there was sufficient racial violence and social turmoil to warrant placing Kentucky under the jurisdiction of the Freedmen’s Bureau in January 1866—making Kentucky the only non-Confederate state to earn that dubious distinction.  Ultimately, civil rights for African Americans were secured through the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, but the ability to exercise those rights was constrained by the continuing opposition of white Kentuckians.

The Civil War also disrupted normal political alliances within the state and created a vacuum in which competing interests strove for dominance.  The result was a triumphant Democratic party comprised of conservatives and former Confederates who, failing to conquer Kentucky by the bullet, did so by the ballot.  By 1877, Kentucky was viewed as Southern in thought and sympathies—and the promise of freedom for all Kentuckians had been betrayed.


Reconstruction/Readjustment: Side 2

The end of the Civil War brought tremendous energy and optimism to African Americans throughout the United States.  In Louisville, African Americans celebrated and paraded well into the summer of 1865.  Black population increased by 120 percent between 1860 and 1870, and by another 40 percent between 1870 and 1880 as thousands of dispossessed African Americans from rural Kentucky converged on the city in search of work, safety and community.  Rapid population growth produced extreme crowding and prompted the evolution of new black neighborhoods in the city and new black hamlets elsewhere in Jefferson County, each of which soon became home to at least one school and at least one church.

Greater numbers, a pre-existing black community structure and the continued presence of some federal troops enabled Louisville African Americans to lead the state in the struggle for freedom and empowerment.  In December 1868, Horace Morris was appointed one of the few black cashiers of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Bank and served until the bank closed in 1874.  “Freedom rides” were organized through Quinn Chapel A.M.E. church to challenge segregation on local streetcars as early as 1870.  In October 1870, petitions and protests resulted in the first public schools for African Americans in the city and, by 1873, the opening of Central Colored School at 6th and Kentucky Streets.  Also, on November 25, 1879, the Kentucky Normal and Theological Institute opened at 7th and Kentucky streets, later renamed State University in 1882 and Simmons University in 1919.

A new leadership class emerged that ministers, teachers, small business owners and.  Nathaniel R. Harper, the first black attorney in Kentucky, and Dr. Henry Fitzbutler, the first physician in the state.  Some allied with influential whites and encouraged African Americans to better themselves within the constraints of segregation.  Others championed the cause of racial equality and justice, and often demanded a larger role within the Republican Party.

By the end of Reconstruction, Louisville African Americans had expanded and strengthened their community and, although still embattled, remained guardedly optimistic.


Selected Sources

Berlin, Ira; Reidy, Joseph P.; and Rowland, Leslie S.  Eds.  Freedom:  A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861-1867, Selected from the Holdings of the National Archives of the United States, 3 volumes (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982).

Channing, Steven A.  Kentucky: A Bicentennial History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1977).

Clark, Thomas D.  A History of Kentucky (Ashland, Kentucky: The Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1988).

Coulter, E. Merton.  The Civil War and Readjustment in Kentucky (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1966).

DuBois, W. E. B.  Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: MacMillan, 1992; first published in 1935).

Gibson, William H., Sr.  Historical Sketches of the Progress of the Colored Race in Louisville, Kentucky (Louisville: n. p., 1897).

Harrison, Lowell H. ed.  Kentucky’s Governors (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004).

Harrison, Lowell H. and Klotter, James C.  A New History of Kentucky (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997).

Howard, Victor B.  Black Liberation in Kentucky:  Emancipation and Freedom, 1862-1884 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983).

Kleber, John E., ed.  The Kentucky Encyclopedia (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1992).

Kleber, John E. ed, The Encyclopedia of Louisville (Lexington: The University of Louisville, 2001).

Lucas, Marion B.  A History of Blacks in Kentucky, Volume 1 From Slavery to Segregation, 1760-1891 (Frankfort, Kentucky: The Kentucky Historical Society, 1992).

Nieman, Donald G.  The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Freedom (New York: Garland Publishers, 1994).

Tapp, Hambleton and Klotter, James C.  Kentucky: Decades of Discord 1865-1900 (Frankfort, Kentucky: The Kentucky Historical Society, 1977).

Webb, Ross A.  Kentucky in the Reconstruction Era (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1979).

Weeden, H.C.  Weeden’s History of the Colored People of Louisville (Louisville: H.C. Weeden, 1897).

Wilson, George D.  A Century of Negro Education in Louisville, Kentucky (Louisville: Louisville Municipal College, 1941).

Wright, George C.  Life Behind a Veil: Blacks in Louisville, Kentucky, 1865-1930 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1985).