Lexington was built on the backs of enslaved labor. Injustice continues today.

·6 min read

Thanks to the Herald-Leader for its apology to Ms. Helen Caise Wade and her family who faced attacks from whites after the paper published a story in 1955 about how Wade, then 16, would be the first African-American to integrate the Fayette County Public Schools when she attended summer school at Lafayette High School in 1955.

But foremost I want to recognize the immense, foundational work done by Lexington’s African American community to tell their story, document their experience, and fight for their rights. Similarly, I commend others in Lexington’s community whose work has contributed to racial justice and equity. I hope this column adds to their work.

My mother graduated Lafayette in 1965, as did I in 1986. We are white but didn’t have much money, yet we owned a good house on a street whose pin oak trees were an unquestioned fixture. As an adult, I have longed to know the history of those trees and the land where I lived.

Here’s what my family knew: when a new subdivision close to Layfette opened in 1954, my mother’s parents bought a house. My grandfather was an assistant professor of agronomy at UK, and my mother attended Clays Mill Elementary the first year it opened. She would later buy a house near Lexington Catholic, a few blocks from where she grew up, so I also attended Clays Mill.

I have been researching the history of that south-Lexington neighborhood, Rosemill, which runs between Southland and Lexington Catholic, Southview and Clays Mill. After reading Marion Brunson Lucas’s “A History of Blacks in Kentucky,” I had some idea what I might find.

In 1860 (94 years before my mom’s family moved there) Fayette County, among all Kentucky counties, had the third largest percentage of enslaved people: nearly one of every two. Only Woodford and Bourbon had slightly higher proportions. Fayette County also had the second highest number of enslaved people in Kentucky (10,015 people), falling just 299 short of Jefferson.

I had no idea about the sheer scope of slavery in Central Kentucky. No one I grew up with did either. We have all been blinded.

The direct and lived repercussions of slavery help define south Lexington, but how?

A visit to the Fayette County Clerk’s office to consult deeds brought two facts to light. First, a man named Thomas Bryan had owned a farm whose boundaries included Rosemill’s. His wealthier brother had sold it to him in 1847. By 1850, Thomas’s nephew owned 300 acres on the other side of Clays Mill.

Who were these Bryans? An internet search led me out Nicholasville Road to the Waveland State Historic Site, so named because of how the fields of hemp seemed to move around its Greek Revivalist mansion. Thomas’s brother Joseph Bryan, who owned the estate, was one of the wealthiest men in the county. His mansion was completed in 1848, 101 years before lots on Rosemill were slated for sale for suburban post-war homes.

The 1860 slave schedules show that the Joseph’s 800-acre estate was home to 20 enslaved people. Only recently, with the help of classes from the University of Kentucky, has Waveland begun to document and provide details about the people who were enslaved there.

I had heedlessly driven by the sign to Waveland 500 times on my way to church or my grandparents’ home (they had moved) just off Nicholasville Road near Jessamine County.

Thomas and Joseph were part of the Bryan family, and their paternal grandmother was Daniel Boone’s sister. Thomas and Joseph’s son held 25 enslaved people between them in 1850, a number which increased to 33 by 1860. They worked 690 acres of land on either side of Clays Mill starting at Rosemont Garden and James Lane Allen.

When I consulted the 1860 agricultural census at the National Archives in Washington D.C., I began to get a sense of what those 33 people were forced do. To be brief, they tended 32 horses, 18 milk cows and 32 swine as well as planting, tending, and harvesting 2,700 bushels of “Indian corn,” 1,750 bushels of oats, 930 pounds of butter, and 17 tons of hemp, which was the big money crop. They also kept house, did the cooking, and more. They made the Bryans rich.

Those numbers tell almost nothing of their lives, but each time my mom and I walk to Southland Park, I think about them.

Redlining Rosemill

The second fact I found at the county clerk’s office shouldn’t have been a surprise. That it was shows how unknowing my people are about the very ground under our feet.

In 1949, home builders were buying parcels of the subdivision I grew up in. Restriction number five in the rules about the neighborhood reads, “No lot in said subdivision shall ever be sold, rented or leased to any negro or colored person or to any organization, or association of negros or colored persons; nor shall any negro or colored person be permitted to occupy any lot except that the owner or lease of any lot or lots may have negro servants remain or reside on the premises.”

That restriction is preceded by one explaining that house plans must be approved and that all “noxious or offensive trades” are banned, which had been an earlier code against selling to people of color and non-Anglo whites.

Direct covenants against selling to African Americans began in the mid-1890s and by 1920 had become common. In graduate school, I had studied redlining, the endemic practice of excluding or creating burdensome financial hurdles for African Americans from buying homes. I had not realized it had helped define my own life.

I checked with people from the neighborhood where I grew up, and no one had any idea that Rosemill, which is still 94.1% white, was an example of redlining. If you live in a pre-1968, primarily-white neighborhood, such practices have helped define your life (and relative wealth) as well.

Since 1968, when redlining became illegal, nearly twice as many people make Fayette County their home, and the median family income has increased by 600%.

However, the wealth gap between whites and Blacks in Fayette County has dramatically increased.

In both 2020 and 1970, the median income for white families stayed almost exactly twice what it was for Black families, meaning the difference between those incomes has also doubled. Currently the median white household income is $27,000 higher than that of Black households. Yet poverty rates for each increased, from 5% to 14.6% of whites as compared to 27.9% to 31.5% of African Americans.

Households in Rosemill have a median income just $1,000 under that of all white households in the county. But the value of the houses in Rosemill skyrocketed long before the current boom. Currently, the house I grew up in and where my mom still lives is worth eighteen times what she paid in 1970.

If you grew up in Fayette County, if you live there now, if you love Fayette County, it’s on us to more fully use the advantages conferred by our birth to rectify those grotesque inequalities by helping to expand the economic and civil rights of people of color as well as tearing down the white walls and laws into which we were born.

Chris Green is Director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College. This piece is a condensed extract from a book he is writing about landscape, wealth, and race in Central Kentucky.

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