Title Reviewed:
A History of Blacks In Kentucky: Volume 1, From Slavery to Segregation, 1760–1891; A History of Blacks in Kentucky: Volume 2, In Pursuit of Equality 1890–1980

Author Reviewed:
Marion B. Lucas; George C. Wright

Bruce M. Tyler


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 89, Issue 4, pp 363-365

Article Type:
Book Review

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A History of Blacks In Kentucky: Volume 1, From Slavery to Segregation, 1760–1891. By Marion B. Lucas. (Frankfort: Kentucky Historical Society, 1992. Pp. xxii, 430. Tables, illustrations, graphs, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95.)

A History of Blacks in Kentucky: Volume 2, In Pursuit of Equality, 1890–1980. By George C. Wright. (Frankfort: Kentucky Historical Society, 1992. Pp. 277. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $29.95.)

Marion B. Lucas has written an outstanding book on black Kentuckians from slavery through the Civil War to the late nineteenth century. His thesis is that the desire and search for liberty and human rights has been an unending process and struggle. Black Kentuckians never faltered despite violent opposition to their liberty and progress.

Lucas engages the reader on subjects such as blacks' labor, living conditions, recreation, health, religion, and education. His descriptions of slave families, slave mobility, the slave trade, slave hiring, and resistance to slavery help Lucas to paint a vivid picture of the tragedy and triumphs of slaves and free blacks under the peculiar institution.

His story of the Civil War and Reconstruction era is especially noteworthy. Black Kentuckians comprised a significant percentage of the Union forces. They struggled for freedom and citizenship with dignity and fortitude. The obstacles were many, the heartbreaks frequent. Progress was often slow, bitter, and painful in the face of determined opposition by hateful whites holding onto old patterns of race relations. Lucas reveals this story with an impressive eye for detail and fine story telling that includes significant pieces of local Kentucky history and that draws on extensive research.

George C. Wright's volume, In Pursuit of Equality, 1890–1980, is an excellent continuation of the history of blacks in Kentucky from the late nineteenth century to 1980. Wright's research is superb, and he possesses an engaging writing style. His thesis is that blacks pursued liberty in America under the Constitution. Blacks faced an emerging system of racial segregation and discrimination, which denied them constitutional rights. They suffered social and legal oppression and devastating poverty because of limited opportunities under a racial caste system. Race relations were deplorable as whites in many of Kentucky's small rural communities and towns engaged in violence and legal lynchings. State terrorism was common. Many blacks were forced to flee their communities and the state.

Blacks who remained in Kentucky engaged in heroic efforts at self-improvement through education, religious institutions, moral character, strong families, and property ownership. Some were able to become successful entrepreneurs despite the many odds against them. Most difficult were the attempts to establish public schools. Many whites resisted and denied public funds. Blacks eventually won limited funding, but resources and physical plants of schools were invariably inadequate. Segregated schools and poor education remained serious problems until the 1960s.

The 1950s and 1960s were the key times of change in Kentucky as the modern Civil Rights movement gained momentum. In Wright's view the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Kentucky was at the center of the Civil Rights movement. Black Civil Rights leadership developed from its ranks. The NAACP fought the essential court cases to desegregate education, housing, and public accommodations. Other Civil Rights groups played important roles, too. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Kentucky in the 1960s to assist in organizing and leading protest marches. Kentucky's blacks and the NAACP, however, remained the core group in the fight for civil liberties and the destruction of white authoritarianism.

Wright notes that from the 1950s to 1980 tremendous positive changes occurred that improved the lives of blacks. Some old pattern still lingered, however, suggesting that the democratic struggle along the color line in Kentucky and the United States is not over.

Lucas and Wright have written excellent accounts of the black experience in Kentucky. The two volumes look at the broad sweep of human experience and will be a model for many years. Lucas and Wright show clearly that a democratic society can be racist, oppressive, and brutal unless its people practice the democratic creed toward all people.

BRUCE M. TYLER is professor of history, University of Louisville. He is the author of From Harlem to Hollywood: The Struggle for Racial and Cultural Democracy, 1920–1943 (1992).

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.