Thursday, February 12, 2015

Reflections on "Race" in Mt. Sterling in the 1860s

Visit to Mt. Sterling in 2001 with Tim Jones
When I initially started researching the Proberts in Mt. Sterling, it involved several trips to the Recorders Office in Montgomery County. I remember my shock when among the ledgers where deeds were recorded were groups of books labeled "Colored" on the shelf. I guess my shock was noticed by one of the other patrons. She asked me where I thought I was and stated that the population of Mt. Sterling around the period of the Civil War was about 50/50 black/white. The ramifications were only beginning to sink in.

Population in 1870

According to a map of Mt. Sterling in 1879, the population of Mt. Sterling was made up of 597 white and 448 black people (57% vs. 43%). Note that this census is five years after the slaves were "freed."
Here is what I know:

1860 Census

In the 1860 Census, Thomas' household includes his wife, 3 children, brother-in-law, and "Hampton." Hampton does not have a surname listed and is also listed as a man of "color." This was shortly after Thomas moved to Mt. Sterling and he was earning his living as a "confectioner." I am assuming that Hampton was a slave, but he did not belong to Thomas as verified by a check of the 1860 Slave Schedules. Slaves were often hired out by their owners to work in certain trades, and I think this is a possibility here. Hampton may have worked at the bakery with his wages going to his owner. It will take more research to verify my assumptions.

Serving Liquor to a Slave

As mentioned earlier, Thomas was indicted in 1864 for "serving liquor to a slave." Here is a copy of the indictment:

Transcription: On the ? day of August, 1864, in the County and Circuit aforesaid did unlawfully sell, loan and give to Jack the slave of Samuel Edger and wife, spiritous liquors, whiskey and brandy without having the written permission so to do from the owners. masters of any one having the custody and control of him for the time being entitled to the custody or services of the said Jack by contract with the owner or anyone having the control and custody of him.
It's hard for me to imagine another human being considered to be "property," but this was the reality of the times. It makes me wonder whether or not Jack knew his circumstances would change in the near future. What's interesting is that Jack was not impacted by Lincoln's "Emancipation Proclamation" issued on January 1, 1863. According to Wikipedia, "The Proclamation applied only to slaves in Confederate-held lands; it did not apply to those in the four slave states that were not in rebellion (Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, and Missouri, which were unnamed), nor to Tennessee (unnamed but occupied by Union troops since 1862) and lower Louisiana (also under occupation), and specifically excluded those counties of Virginia soon to form the state of West Virginia." 

Acknowledging the Truth

I have never been able to prove that Thomas was a slave owner. However, I must admit to my own shock when I uncovered this deed. I was researching all of the deeds for Proberts and related family to see what had been purchased and how much it cost. In the Recorders Office, I was able to get a copy of the deed for the purchase of the building that was used for the "confectionery shop" in 1863.

If you notice in the section labeled "price paid," that Thomas paid "nine hundred dollars, four hundred fifty dollars of which is to be paid on the 8th day of July, 1864, and the remaining four hundred and fifty dollars on the 8th day of December 1864." Part of the purchase price, however, was a negro boy named Harry. On this day, Thomas H. Probert "sold, delivered and transferred, all right, title and interest in and to a certain negro boy named Harry to the party of the first part."

At times, I wish I had never found that document, but on the other hand I believe that we, as a country, must collectively assume responsibility for what we were willing to do to human beings at this time. Sometimes, in my mind, I think of this period of time as something that like the Holocaust, we have a duty to "Never Forget." More importantly, we must acknowledge the impact that the legacy of slavery has on our society today and make every effort to ensure justice and opportunity for us all.


  1. It is most unsettling to recognize one's ancestors as slave-holders, selling young children away from their parents as if they were dogs out of a litter. We have to remember. Many of my own ancestors were from northern states (CT, ME, NY) but several had one or two slaves. I would look at the record of their slave-holding and think of that person owned by another, and ask for forgiveness from the actions of my ancestor... So difficult. Living in BC it all feels very alien to even think this was considered perfectly normal....

  2. Celia, Thanks for taking the time to comment on this post. When you pour your heart and soul into something, it's nice to know that someone actually read it.


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