At the Museum: Antebellum African-Americans topic of new web section

Published 8:10 am Friday, March 24, 2017

By Rosemary Campbell

Bluegrass Heritage Museum

Did you know you can “visit” the Bluegrass Heritage Museum without traveling to Main Street? Our website, www.bgheritage.com, offers a variety of documents and photos depicting various aspects of Winchester and Clark County history.

You can hear stories about the old train station, Saturday night at the Leeds, the missions of the Guerrant family and President Truman’s visit in 1948.

There are maps and documents about early schools in the county, Civil War soldiers, graveyards and much more. You can also see photos from the vast collection donated to the museum by The Winchester Sun.

One of the most recent additions to the website is a section on African-American history, particularly focusing on the period before the Civil War. As you probably know, information on this group from this time is limited.

Much early black history has been shrouded by the dehumanizing effects of slavery. For example, literacy for slaves usually was prohibited, so most couldn’t write their own accounts. Often a slave’s name was never even recorded in censuses.

However, challenging as these factors are, it is still possible for a determined researcher to uncover significant information about the early history of blacks in America.

Proof of this is the years-long dedication of Lyndon Comstock. His journey began as an inquiry into his own family’s genealogy and connections to Clark and Madison counties.

Shocked to find his namesake ancestor listed as a slave-owner, Comstock delved into one source after another (property and tax records, court cases, censuses, church and military lists, etc.) and began filling in some of the blanks of this early history.

His family research ultimately turned into an on-going study of the history of African-Americans in the region. The result is hundreds of pages of black history he is developing into a forthcoming book, “Before Abolition: African-Americans in Early Clark County, Kentucky.”

“Approximately 5,000 black people, more than 97 percent of them enslaved, lived in Clark County, Kentucky, in the years just before the Civil War. They accounted for nearly half of the county’s population at the time,” Comstock writes in the introduction of his book.

“As in so many other locales, the black people of Clark County provided the majority of the physical labor and much of the skilled knowledge that built and sustained the county in its opening decades,” he continues.

“The early history of African-Americans is so often filled with pain, yet, if we keep looking away for that reason, we lose so much. These individuals are the family ancestors of a great many of us who are alive today. They’re the cultural ancestors of us all. We owe it to ourselves, and to them, to know more about them.”

While much of the information Comstock has gathered offers only a glimpse of individual lives, occasionally he was able to discover enough to write narratives about some people.

He has graciously allowed the museum to offer several excerpts from his book on our website, including the introduction and several chapters on specific individuals. More will be added over time.

One such narrative is titled “Aaron Abbott’s Amazing Achievements.” Aaron was a slave who managed to effect his freedom and that of much of his family through incredible perseverance and courage.

Comstock sets the stage for Aaron’s story by discussing the circumstances under which an enslaved person might gain his/her freedom. Escape was one possibility, though that was rare enough for an individual. It was even more difficult for a family.

“Other than escape, the only other route to freedom for a slave was to be legally emancipated by their owner (known as manumission),” Comstock writes. “Although … emancipation of a slave was legally possible in Kentucky, it was uncommon. Few people had the good fortune of an owner who granted freedom, and even then that freedom usually came only after decades of obedient servitude.”

Sometimes former slaves were able to purchase family members, with the express purpose of freeing them.

“Rarest of all … was a person who was able to emancipate himself or herself by purchasing their own freedom from their owner. … How was a slave — who ordinarily wasn’t paid for any of the work they performed for their owner — ever to obtain that much money? …

“Out of the thousands of people held as slaves in Clark County over many decades, the author has only been able to identify one person who managed to buy his own freedom and thus legally emancipate himself (self-manumit): Aaron Abbott.”

Aaron was born in Virginia in April 1806 and traveled with his parents as slaves of Bivin Abbott to Kentucky about 1809.

“Bivin’s son Barzilla Abbott, who married Eveline Rankin in 1825, set up his own household in Clark County after marriage. Aaron passed from Bivin into Barzilla’s hands prior to 1830.”

Eveline owned a slave named Charity, and at some point she became the wife of Aaron.

“In the 1830s, Barzilla rented Aaron out to an ironworks for seven years. It sounds like a 19th century version of a felony prison sentence: condemned to toil as a slave laborer in the hot, loud, fearsome interior of an early iron foundry.”

Barzilla received the pay for Aaron’s 10-plus required hours of labor each day, which amounted to three or four cents an hour.

“Extraordinarily hardworking and disciplined man that he was, Aaron was able to turn this horrifying circumstance into a pathway to freedom. … [He] performed prodigious amounts of extra work, above and beyond the long hours already required of him as a slave, but for cash. On average, for every week over the course of seven years, he earned more than $2.50 in cash. …

“Even if, as is probable, the pay was entirely in the form of piecework bonuses rather than an hourly rate, and even taking into account that he must have been a virtuoso at hammering metal, the sheer sustained effort required is unthinkable. …

“On the basis of the large sum of $920 that he saved from his seven years of overtime at the ironworks, Aaron was able to make a contract with Barzilla to buy his own freedom for $1,050. Although the remaining balance was still owed to Barzilla and wasn’t ultimately paid off in full until 1848, Barzilla did grant Aaron his freedom in October 1838. …(That gesture, minimal as it was, combined with Barzilla’s willingness to even countenance Aaron’s self-purchase, was surely the reason that Aaron later named two of [his] children Barzel and Nancy Eveline.)”

As amazing as this feat was, Aaron didn’t stop there. He spent years as a freedman working on a small farm he purchased and at other work, and he continued to save enough money to purchase the freedom of his wife and several children. After his wife died in the early 1850s, he married another woman in 1854 who was enslaved, Harriett Jones, and eventually worked enough to purchase her freedom as well.

“Once Aaron, his second wife Harriett, and most of his children were free, the couple promptly made the decision to move north of the Ohio River to a free state. …

“In 1864, Aaron’s son Charles, who was born in 1842 and was still held as a slave, escaped to enlist in the 117th U.S. Colored Infantry in Covington, Kentucky. His unit was sent to the Virginia front, where he served in the siege of Richmond. In a highly dramatic moment, especially for someone who had been a slave for his entire life prior to joining the Union Army, Charles was present at Appomattox when the Confederacy met its end.“

After Aaron’s death (probably circa 1885), Harriett moved in 1887 to Waco, Texas, to be near her daughter Betty. Harriett died there in 1892. … Still revered by his descendants, Aaron Abbott deserves to be more widely remembered for his indomitable commitment to freedom from slavery.”

For the complete version of “Aaron Abbott’s Amazing Achievements” and other accounts of some remarkable early Clark County African-Americans, go to bgheritage.com.