By Deborah J. Thompson, CWGK Editorial Assistant, and Charles R. Welsko, CWGK Project Director
Inspired by the passage of Juneteenth as a federal holiday in 2021, this series of posts examines documents in the CWGK archive to uncover the stories of how three different African American couples encountered freedom. Late in the war, a woman named Lennie claimed her freedom through an unnamed and absent husband in the U.S. Colored Troops. Henry Pointer, a freed man, followed his enslaved wife out of state, facing charges of illegal immigration upon returning to Kentucky in 1859. Mary “Polly” Ann Southgate, a free woman of color, owned her own husband, Caleb Hitch, and was fined for allowing him to work for wages. As Amy Taylor noted in her award-winning book, Embattled Freedom, the destruction of slavery and the enactment of emancipation remained elusive and uneven processes during the war. The stories of these couples reveal the contingent nature of freedom and emancipation in Kentucky throughout the Civil War.
The commemoration of Juneteenth (the day enslaved Texans heard of their freedom) and other emancipation-related holidays reflect the uneven nature of emancipation, as there was no one date when slavery truly ended nationally. Many Kentuckians, particularly in Lexington and Louisville, celebrated January 1 as Emancipation Day after 1865, as the date of the Emancipation Proclamation’s issue. In Evansville, Indiana, across the river from Henderson, Kentucky, celebrations of the Emancipation Proclamation took place on September 22, the date of its preliminary issue. Some celebrated July 4, and the birth of the U.S.A., with a rebirth of freedom caused by the eradication of slavery—or—as a reason to protest lack of full civil rights for formerly enslaved persons. Some areas of western Kentucky and Tennessee continue to celebrate the end of slavery on August 8, although there are conflicting accounts of the significance of that date. The Paducah Daily News-Democrat on August 8, 1905, stated that it commemorated the freedom of slaves in Santo Domingo, Haiti being the first Black republic established in the Western Hemisphere after a slave uprising that began in 1791. The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia cites another version of August 8th’s origin story, tracing it to Tennessee Military Governor Andrew Johnson’s emancipation action in his district.
These different celebratory dates emerged because African Americans encountered freedom unevenly throughout the war. For some, the movement and presence of the U.S. Army encouraged enslaved individuals in Virginia, Kentucky, or along the Confederate coast to flee their enslavers early in the war. As the war progressed, and the U.S. Army pushed deeper into the Confederacy, more enslaved individuals had the opportunity to self-emancipate. Legally, the path to freedom was winding. Abraham’s Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation, issued officially on January 1, 1863, fundamentally changed the tone of the Civil War to include the destruction of slavery. While Lincoln declared the enslaved people in most of the rebellious Confederate states free by their own national, state, and local laws, the Confederacy maintained the enslavement of nearly four million Black Americans. Federal law and military power could not enforce the Emancipation Proclamation in the South, but it provided Black Americans, enslaved or free, the ability to act on the possibility of a future defined by freedom, not servitude.
The narrative is more complicated in the loyal border states (like Maryland, Missouri, and Kentucky), since they remained unaffected by the Emancipation Proclamation. Slavery ended in these states at different times. Maryland passed a new constitution to dismantle slavery in 1864. Missouri passed their own anti-slavery ordinance in early 1865. Kentucky waited until the national ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, begrudgingly relinquishing the enslavement of Black Americans. The enslavement of four million African Americans did not end at once; rather, it concluded in a rolling, uneven, tumult of violence, uncertainty, and hardship intermingled with hope and possibility.
The lives of African American Kentuckians became even more complicated when one spouse gained their freedom while the other remained enslaved. In the following posts, CWGK NHPRC Editorial Assistant Deborah Thompson will highlight the experiences of three different African American couples torn between slavery and freedom. The next post will focus on a couple caught in the conflict between civil law and military orders in the waning months of the war, when the U.S. government and its military proclaimed freedom for the families of African American soldiers but state law did not support this decision. CWGK document KYR-0001-004-1795 describes the testimony of Lennie, the wife of a U.S. Colored Troops infantryman, who left her master “on strength of an order issued by Major General John Palmer freeing the wives of Colored Soldiers.” Lennie was in danger of reenslavement due to her illness and uncertain legal position, partly because as a slave she could not prove her marriage to her husband. She had no rights as a citizen even to offer her own testimony in her case. Her story and the ones that follow foreground the contingent, unpredictable, and tumultuous experience of emancipation in wartime Kentucky.
 Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
 Marion B. Lucas, A History of Blacks in Kentucky from Slavery to Segregation, 1760-1891 (Frankfort, KY: Kentucky Historical Society, 2003), 299.
 Darrell E. Bigham, On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and Its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2003), 371.
 Lucas, 300.
 Sallie L. Powell, “August 8th Emancipation Celebration,” in The Kentucky African American Encyclopedia, ed. Gerald L. Smith, Karen Cotton McDaniel, and John A. Hardin (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 29.
 Thomas E. Bramlette, Message of Governor Thos. E. Bramlette, to the General Assembly of Kentucky, December Session, 1865 (KYR-0001-008-0002).
 Henry H. Hadley to Unknown (KYR-0001-004-1795).