Penetrating Surveying and Exploring the Restored Memories of Slavery in Farmington House and Others

Last year marked the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in America. The 1807 statute that effected it is entitled “An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States, etc.”.

The Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 (while the Civil War was still on 145 years ago stated that it applied only to:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana (except the parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Terre Bonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the city of New Orleans), Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkeley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Anne, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth), and which excepted parts are for the present left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

Lincoln excluded areas under union control so as to avoid pushing the border states into joining the confederacy. The civil war which was fought between the slave holding states of the south and the Northern confederate states then under the presidency of Abraham Lincoln was in essence over the rights to hold slaves as property. For the Southern states were known for their extensive exploitation of slave labor to work their plantations. Kentucky was one of such states.

In June 2006 whilst part of the Summer institute of the study of contemporary American Literature we were led on a conducted tour of the restored remains of one of such plantations and its slave house and other appendages. This plantation along with its slave house, Farmington, reflect much of how it was then in the early 19th century.

.As we walked into the green grass-carpeted lawn through the wooden paved walkway, several structures caught my attention apart from the 14-roomed Federal style home which is said to have been patterned from an architectural plan drawn by one-time U.S President, Thomas Jefferson.

This farm house was begun in1815 and completed in 1816. Its construction involved large numbers of enslaved some of whom may have been skilled artisans such as blacksmiths, carpenters, sawyers and masons.

Learning that Abraham Lincoln, another former U.S President once lived here further increased my interest in exploring it.

Slave life here was like it was at other large Kentucky plantations, as we were told by our guide. John Speed who eventually owned the property migrated there from Virginia in 1782., coming along with his parents, brothers, sisters and family slaves. Towards the end of the 1790’s he was already running the salt works at Mann’s Lick in southern Jefferson County with most of his laborers being enslaved Africans who were hired from other slave owners.

By 1800, John Speed had married Abby Lemaster and was living at Pond Creek in Jefferson County, Kentucky as a thriving businessman, owning sixteen slaves who worked the grist and saw mills as well as the salt works at Mann’s Lick. Soon widowed with two young daughters, Mary and Eliza, John Speed married twenty-year-old Lucy Gilmer Fry of Mercer County in 1808. Lucy’s father, Joshua Fry, taught at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. Her maternal grandfather was Dr. Thomas Walker, an early explorer of Kentucky and also one of the guardians of young Thomas Jefferson.

By 1809 Speed had accumulated enough from the salt works to enable him purchase land on Beargrass Creek, including the present site of Farmington, which he completed around 1809. Purchasing a large tract of land on Beargrass Creek in early 1810, John Speed began building the fourteen-room federal-style brick house using master builders from Philadelphia and skilled slave craftsmen. The house, with its octagonal side-rooms, is similar in concept to several of Thomas Jefferson’s domestic designs. Farmington’s name is one that is shared with the Charlottsville, Virginia, home of Lucy’s maternal aunt.

Later that same year they were already moved in and living in cabins in this 550 acre Farmington property.

In 1810 Speed is listed in census reports as owning ten slaves, two of whom were Phillis Thurston and her brother, Morrocco, who were given to John and Lucy Speed by the Fry family who originally owned them. Then with the establishment and development of the Farmington plantation, Speed’s slave ownership rapidly increased from 12 in 1811 to 39 in 1812 and then further to 43 in 1813.

Speed also supervised the continuation of the road from Louisville to Bardstown, with labor provided by his plantation hands as well as those of Samuel Brays. The completion of this road enabled troops to move along there to be fed and clothed by the Speeds in the war of 1812. During the Civil War Joshua and James Speed played important roles in keeping Kentucky in the Union. Joshua traveled frequently to Washington and was instrumental in arranging for weapons to be delivered to Union loyalists throughout the state. Because of this influence, Kentucky’s pro-Confederacy Governor Beriah Magoffin and the legislature, also sympathetic to the Southern cause, were never able to tip the scale toward secession.

From the completion of the Farmington slave house in 1816 unto Speed’s death in 1840 up to 64 enslaved Africans worked there. The plantation mainly grew hemp which was used to make rope and baggings for the cotton trade. Replicas of these were seen as we toured the building. The farm also produced corn, hay, apples, pork, vegetables, wheat, tobacco and dairy products. Slaves who worked in the fields were charged with the tasks of planting, harvesting and shipping products to markets. Helping in this were those laboring at the ropewalk and those who drove the wagons.

The Speeds in spite of being strongly pro-Union saw slavery as an accepted way of life as it was for all others in their community. For slave labor was seen as essential to the profitable operations of the plantation. For the profits derived from slave labor at Farmington as well as income from hiring them out helped to pay for luxury goods and for educating the children and other family necessities.

Responsibilities at the plantation were distributed amongst men and women slaves. Men mainly did the back-breaking job of harvesting hemp which entailed cutting, hauling and pounding open the hemp stalks on a hemp break. Each man was required to break 80-100 pounds per day with those who exceeded this being paid for their extra work. Women labored outside the house, milking cows and driving them to pasture and carrying heavy loads of wood and water a considerable distance to the house. Those in the house did the cooking and cleaning. They lit the fire, sewed the clothes, churned butter and performed many other household tasks. So dependent were the Speed women said to have being on slave labor that they would rely on a negro slave to bring them water rather than getting up themselves and move across the room to get it.

According to both James and Thomas Speed, John Speed’s great-nephew and author of Records and Memories of the Speed Family, 1892, John Speed provided adequate surroundings for the black slaves at Farmington, with each one and his wife having a comfortable room, with a fire in it, as well as a bed and bed clothes, chairs, tables, and cooking utensils. Slaves were also encouraged to cultivate patches of land for themselves, profits from which they used to improve their clothing. Several of them including Morocco and Rose, the favored ones, were entrusted to carrying out special confidential tasks such as carrying letters and messages back and forth, selling produce in the Louisville markets and transporting the children around.

In reality, however, life at Farmington was far from rosy. Cases of resistance to enslavement there are many. In 1823, William C. Bullitt of the Oxmoor plantation placed an advertisement in the local newspaper for the capture of the runaway Ben Johnston, hired from John Speed. In 1826, Speed advertised for the capture of two skilled men, Charles Harrison and Frazier, who had escaped. Here below is another advertisement from the August 19, 1826 issue of the LOUISVILLE PUBLIC ADVERTISER being just one example of such advertisements placed in Louisville papers for runaway slaves.

John Speed died in 1840. Following his death, Phillip Speed is reported to have placed similar advertisements in 1851. Dinnie Thompson, granddaughter of Philis Thurston often related about how she and her mother, Diana Thompson, escaped from Mary and Eliza Speed only to be captured in a skiff as they were about to cross the Ohio River to freedom.

Upon Speed’s death a 15 year old slave, Bartlett, suspected of setting fire to Farmington’s hemp factory was sold by James Speed to W.H.. Pope & Co for $575,00 to be taken away from the state. After John Speed’s death, 57 of his slaves were divided among his wife and children. To ensure each child received an equal share in the estate, some slave families were separated. Peay, husband of Speed’s daughter, Peachy, bought the house and some acreage in 1846.

James Speed well known for being a strong emancipationist, is reported to have expressed anti-slavery feelings frequently during his interview in 1863 and on many public occasions. So by the early 1850’s it was not surprising that he had ceased being a slave owner. Then followed a spate of emancipations so that by 1865, the property had completely passed out of the family’s hands.

Before the war and during it, some Speed family members freed their slaves. According to court documents, on the same day in 1845, Lucy G. Speed, John’s widow, and their daughter Lucy F. Breckinridge emancipated three slaves – Rose, Sally and her son Harrod. Other family members, such as sons J. Smith, Joshua, Phillip and daughters Mary and Eliza freed their slaves between 1863 and 1865.

This rich and interesting history is restored and propagated to floods of visitor to Farmington House through guides, films, books, exhibitions of photo graphs and relics and brochures chronicling facts of the history and the restoration and preservation of it all.

Farmington is said to have opened its doors to the public as a museum in 1957. But since then it has undergone several renovations and reinterpretations. Its present presentation is based on an extensive reinterpretation and restoration completed in 2002 to reflect the life of the Speed family during the1840’s.

The house is now newly restored with its original paint colors, historic wallpapers and carpets lining the walls and the floors and furnished with Kentucky furniture and other antiques of the period. It has been completely painted both inside and outside thus restoring it to its original bright- blue, yellow and pink colors. The interior woodwork, the fireplaces in each room and the brass-work are all original as are many of the unusually large window panes which all still remain in incredibly excellent condition. No house in Kentucky more gracefully embodies Federal architecture than it. Striking Jeffersonian features of its perfectly proportioned 14 rooms include two octagonal rooms imbedded in its centre, the adventurously steep and narrow hidden stairway and the fanlights between the front and rear halls. Exquisite reeded doorways, carved mantels, and marbleized baseboard add special elegance to its interior. Also compelling much attention are the elaborate early 19th century garden, with it’s stone springhouse and barn, as well as cook’s quarters, kitchen, blacksmith shop, museum store and a remodeled carriage house.

As we toured the entire house we came to the basement room where Abraham Lincoln was said to have been lodged during his entire stay here and we were in awe- struck attention as we were shown many items which are living witnesses to his stay. We knew we were also associates in that historic moment. Lincoln traveled from Illinois to visit Joshua Speed and family at Farmington in August 1841. For they had developed a close friendship during the four years they had known each other and were sharing living quarters. Through Joshua, Lincoln, the young lawyer then, started widening his social and political circles. But by the time of his visit, a beleaguered Lincoln had broken off his relationship with the bright and attractive young woman, Mary Todd. He had even decided against running for reelection. So when Joshua invited him over Abe welcomed it as a way of soothing his despair.

Lincoln’s three weeks at Farmington would prove to be indeed restorative. For he was warmly welcomed and befriended by the Speeds. Here he took long walks with his friend Joshua, borrowed law books from Joshua’s brother, James, who was later to become Attorney General in Lincoln’s last cabinet. The recently widowed Mrs Speed gave Lincoln a Bible, counseling him to be reading it regularly.

As Judge John Speed held progressive views concerning the education of women and therefore encouraged his daughters to study diligently, unlike the prevailing custom which placed a higher value on the extensive education of men, Lincoln found these educated Speed women to be delightful company. He found the Speeds in general an educated and cultivated family, fond of music, literature and good conversation. They so loved music that for several years they sponsored Anton Phillip Heinrich, a Bohemian composer. While living at Farmington he created a number of his famous works which appeared in his collection, The Dawning of Music in Kentucky. Later called the Beethoven of America, Heinrich is considered the United States’ first professional composer. He no doubt influenced John Speed’s eldest daughter Mary, who was an accomplished pianist and composer.

Farmington was important to Lincoln for it was probably the first slave plantation he had visited. So when writing back to Joshua’s half-sister, Mary in September 1841 following his departure from Louisville he expressed what were said to be his first known written observation of slavery. For Lincoln was shaken by seeing shackled slaves and slaves on the verge of being resold. His impressions of the horror of slavery never left him, and over the years slavery was perhaps the one subject he remained resolutely opposed to.

Farmington is only one of many such buildings associated with slavery that have been preserved and many of which have been turned to museums and would very much like to visit. I would confine myself to those in Africa which would be feasible for me to visit. Let me first acknowledge my progress in that scheme by visiting Goree Island July 2007 just a year after my visiting Farmington

This infamous Goree island shaped like the African continent, was the last view of Africa seen by captured men and women taken to a life of Slavery in the Americas and Caribbean. Through a cruise to the island we visited the Slave Houses and Forts utilized for the Slave Trade passing through the Door of No Return and museums to learn more about the island’s past through a lecture given by curator Joseph N’Diaye. After that we enjoyed lunch at an island restaurant and cruised back to Dakar.

St George’s Castle in Elmina, one of several former slave forts along Ghana’s Atlantic coast, is a hugely popular destination and place of pilgrimage for African-Americans and visitors from all over the world with its slave dungeons and punishment cells. as well as a slave auctioning room which now houses a small museum being traumatic sights to withstand.

Cape Coast Castle and Museum is another. The Cape Coast Castle also played a prominent role in the slave trade with its slave dungeons, Palaver hall, the grave of an English Governor, and more. The castle headquartered the British colonial administration for nearly 200 years. The Museum now houses objects from around the region including artifacts used during the slave trade. An informative video gives a good introduction to the business of slavery showing how it was conducted.

The Gold Coast in Ghana is in fact lined with old forts used by European powers during the slave trade some of which have been turned into guesthouses and others forts like Fort Amsterdam in Abanze having many original features, reflecting what it was like during the slave trade.

Salaga in northern Ghana was the site of a major slave market whose grounds; slave wells which were used to wash slaves and spruce them up for a good price; and a huge cemetery where slaves who had died were laid to rest have all been preserved for visitation and as relics.

Goree Island (Ile de Goree) , is Senegal’s premiere destination for those interested in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave-trade.

The main attraction there is the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) built by the Dutch in 1776 as a holding point for slaves which has itself been converted into a museum where you are led through the dungeons where the slaves were held and learn exactly how they were sold and shipped.

Porto-Novo the capital of Benin which was established as a major slave-trading post by the Portuguese in the 17th century has many ruined castles which can still be explored as I did our own ruined fort at Bunce Island in Sierra Leone well before the devastating war.

Ouidh (west of Coutonou) is where slaves captured in Togo and Benin would spend their final night before embarking on their trans-Atlantic journey. There’s a History Museum (Musee d’Histoire d’Ouidah) which tells the story of the slave trade there.

The Route des Esclaves is a 2.5 mile (4km) road lined with fetishes and statues where the slaves would take their final walk down to the beach and to the slave-ships. Important memorials have been set up in the last village on this road, which was the “point of no return”.

Albreda an island that was an important slave post for the French is now a slave museum as well.

James Island was used to hold slaves for several weeks before they were shipped to other West African ports for sale. A dungeon where slaves were held for punishment still remains intact.

Lesser known slave trade sites but worth visiting in West Africa include Gberefu Island and Badagry in Nigeria; Arochukwu, Nigeria; and Guinea’s Atlantic Coast.