The Free Black Community of Louisville

The Free Black Community of Louisville:  Side 1

Through the colonial period, a small minority of the African American population was nominally free.  This minority grew dramatically when, consistent with the stated principles of the American Revolution, slavery was abolished in New England and the mid-Atlantic states between 1777 and the 1820s.  At the same time, the more southerly states, while contemplating the end of slavery in the 1780s, became its hostage after the invention of the Cotton Gin revitalized the peculiar institution.  By 1830, there were nearly 2,700,000 African Americans in the United States—13.7 percent of whom were free.

Although not enslaved, free people of color were treated as outcasts throughout much of the north and west, banned in most of the lower south and tolerated grudgingly as an alien element in the border and upper south.  Frequent mob violence often reduced the struggle for equal black citizenship to a desperate search for a safe place to live—ideally, with the possibility of land ownership, work for decent wages or the opportunity to practice a trade.  Intense racial prejudice, both north and south, scattered free African Americans throughout the border-states, the north and the western frontier in towns, cities and rural enclaves where opportunities were greatest and resistance was least.

Free people of color were usually considered subjects, not citizens, of the United States—with few rights and little legal protection.  However, unlike enslaved African Americans, free people of color were persons, not property, under the law.  Their births and deaths were recorded.  They could marry legally, own property and enter into contracts.  And, because enslaved African Americans were too small a minority to overthrow slavery from within, free people of color played a central role in establishing black communities, founding black institutions and as the backbone of the anti-slavery movement.


The Free Black Community of Louisville:  Side 2

Between 1830 and 1860, the free African American population of Louisville increased from 232 to 1,917, or by 726 percent and Louisville became home to the largest concentration of free people of color both in Kentucky and in the upper South—west of Baltimore.  Locally, free people of color did not live in segregated neighborhoods, per se, but were clustered in alleys, or on certain blocks or parts of certain streets.  They were disproportionately young and female.  Most were desperately poor, with the of owning and operating businesses blocked by laws enacted to prevent competition with whites and their employment opportunities limited to labor and domestic service.  Still, work was plentiful and a handful of more fortunate free blacks worked as clerks, musicians, teachers, teamsters, blacksmiths, barbers and on the steamboats that plied the river.

Louisville was a decidedly hostile environment and weaving a few hundred free people of color into a community depended on astute leadership.  In the 1830s, three individuals emerged as the principal architects of black Louisville.  One, Shelton Morris, founded the first black business in Louisville in 1832, a barbershop and bathhouse under the old Galt House.  Another, Washington Spradling, speculated in real estate and, by the 1860s, became the first African American in Kentucky worth more than $100,000.  Together, as brothers-in-law, Spradling and Morris once owned much of the eastern Russell Area in the 1830s.  Yet another, Eliza Curtis Hundley Tevis, became the only significant free black land-owner in the surrounding county when she purchased the land that developed into the Newburg/Petersburg community.  By the 1850s, through their leadership and institution-building efforts, there were eight independent black churches in Louisville, most of which also sponsored small schools, in or near the old downtown area.

The establishment of a free black community in the midst of slavery was a defining moment in the struggle for freedom in Louisville.  If the history of African Americans in Louisville begins with slavery, the history of the black community of Louisville begins with this free black community.


Selected Sources

Bigham, Darrel E.  On Jordan’s Banks:  Emancipation and Its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006): 13-32.

Curry, Leonard P.  The Free Black in Urban America, 1800-1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

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

Graham, Ruth Morris.  The Saga of the Morris Family (Columbus, GA: Brentwood Christian Communications, 1984).

Hudson, J. Blaine.  “African American Religion in Antebellum Louisville, Kentucky.”  The Griot:  Journal of the Southern Conference on African American Studies, 17, 2(1998):  43-54.

Hudson, J. Blaine.  “Upon this Rock—The Free African American Community of Antebellum Louisville, Kentucky.”  Presentation, “Land, River and Peoples:  Louisville before the Civil War” Conference, University of Louisville, May 29, 2009.

“Local Evils.” Louisville Public Advertiser, November 30, 1835.

Simmons, Reverend William J.  Men of Mark:  Eminent, Progressive and Rising (New York: Arno Press, 1968; first published in 1887).

Wickendon, Henry C.  “History of the Churches of Louisville with Special Reference to Slavery.”  Master’s thesis, University of Louisville, 1921.

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