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Buxton: Bullitt County has rich history in African American past

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By Stephen Thomas

 SHEPHERDSVILLE - It began with the discovery of a cemetery, discarded and covered with brush, along Highway 44 West.

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Daniel Buxton, president of the Bullitt County Genealogical Society, located the “colored” cemetery and a number of its remaining markers.

“I noticed there was no formal research on black history in Bullitt County,” Buxton told a gathering at the Ridgway Memorial Library. “Finding the cemetery, overgrown like that, got me going.”

Buxton moved to the area in 2005. As other society members focused their attention to family tree research, Buxton adopted black history as his formal project.

His culmination of research was presented as “Slavery to Segregation: Black American History in Bullitt County.”

Buxton noted that slavery had been a part of the area culture even before Kentucky acquired its Commonwealth status in 1792.

According to the US Census records, there were more than 1,000 slaves listed in Bullitt County between 1820 and 1860. During the 1830 and 1840 census, no free Black Americans were listed in the county.

Salt making, a hot, difficult process implementing iron furnaces, was a major commodity in the 1800s. Buxton said slaves were commonly used to fulfill these tasks.

Buxton said slavery didn’t necessarily mean abuse and punishment. He said many local families reportedly treated slaves well, as if they were family.

Unfortunately, there were other instances. Buxton shared a story taken from a burial service for a slave that was killed by his master, with the master reminding at the service who the master was.

“It sums up the mindset then,” Buxton said.

An 1844 deed from the Bullitt County History Museum was displayed showing the sale of a slave woman and daughter. He said deeds were hard to find because they had become collectors’ items.

“Many slaves were bought and sold,” Buxton mentioned. “If you bought a male slave and a female slave, and they had a baby, then you had another potential slave to sale at full profit.”

Buxton located a handful of former slave quarters still standing in Bullitt County. He also noted a stone slab in the median of Joe B. Hall Avenue.

“The legend is that was where slaves were auctioned,” he said, though he admitted that wasn’t fully confirmed.

A number of slave cemeteries are located in Bullitt County, including the Magruder Slave Cemetery located in Bernheim Forest.

The CIvil War marked the end of slavery in the United States. A handful of black soldiers from Bullitt County participated in the Union cause.

Among these soldiers was Grandison Kelly, who was promoted to sergeant. One soldier joined under the pseudonym of Christopher Columbus. Another, Reason Northern, was listed as the name of a well-respected soldier buried in the cemetery Buxton rediscovered along Highway 44.

Following the Civil War black schools appeared in Bullitt County as segregation became the new norm. Among them was Eckstein Norton University. Open between 1890 and 1911, the university offered 189 degrees.

“Eckstein Norton had a musical program and a band,” Buxton said. “They once performed for the President.”

Another prominent black school, Bowman Valley, began in 1916 and existed until the beginning of segregation in the 1950s. Work  is currently being done to raise funds to relocate the building near the Bullitt County Public Schools Central Office, next to the Woodsdale Schoolhouse.

Buxton mentioned that one of the former Bowman Valley students may have graduated from Harvard. He is still investigating the claim.

Bullitt County hosted a number of black churches in its history. Buxton told of the First Corinthian Church, founded in 1881, that was blown up by dynamite during the Civil Rights era in 1968.

Controversy is an unfortunate part of the county’s black history. According to Buxton, an event known as the Whiskey Riot occurred in 1874.

Buxton learned that two men named Carpenter and Phillips were running for judge in that year’s election. Carpenter gave free whiskey to a number of black men in exchange for their vote support.

After winning, Carpenter invited the same black men to more free whiskey the next day, resulting in two days of violent behavior.

“The 1874 Whiskey Riot actually appeared in the New York Times,” Buxton said.

The “Negro School Scare” was reported by The Pioneer News in 1909. Eckstein Norton College was merging with Berea College to form a new institution planned on the site of what is now Bernheim Forest.

The plans included a homestead of divided property for black residents, who in turn would raise crops and sell them to the school.

The school was met with a great deal of resistance from local officials. It would eventually open in Shelby County as the Lincoln Institute.

It was in 1923, Buxton said, that Bullitt County saw its first visit by the Ku Klux Klan, when they placed an ad in The Pioneer News for a meeting at the county courthouse.

By 1924 the KKK hosted a parade along what is now Buckman Street, burning crosses and recruiting members. Buxton said a women’s auxiliary was formed.

Photos collected by the History Museum displayed KKK marches through Shepherdsville in the mid-1970s.

For information call the Bullitt County History Museum, 921-0161,

The Bullitt County Genealogical Society meets on the third Saturday of each month, 10 a.m., at Ridgway Memorial Library.