By Margaret Warminski
Aside from statistical data (census and tax records) pertaining to slavery, the history of African-Americans in Boone County is largely unwritten and is slowly being pieced together from various sources, primarily oral history. Like much of Kentucky, the antebellum African-American slave population in Boone County was divided among a large number of white owners, very few of whom owned more than 10 individuals. Only about 30 percent of Boone County’s white landowners could afford to own any slaves, who could be equivalent in value to “20 acres of good land or a full complement of livestock” (Tanner 1986:3). Kentucky produced more slaves than the local economy could support and many were sold to plantations in the “deep south.”
The 1800 Census reported a total of 325 enslaved African-Americans in Boone County, comprising about 21 percent of the population. This percentage figure held true for the next half-century. In 1840, there were 2,183 African-American slaves, again about 20 percent of the county’s total population. However, by the 1860 Census, only 1,745 African-Americans remained in the county, about 15 percent of the total population. As the slavery system collapsed across Kentucky after 1862, the African-American population in Boone County declined dramatically. By 1870, 45 percent of the 1,745 African-Americans living in Boone County a decade before had left the county. This represents one of the highest rates of out-migration in the country during the Civil War decade of 1860-1870. By comparison, the African-American population across the state of Kentucky declined 5.9 percent during the same period.
Nearly 800 African-Americans left Boone County after the Civil War. As a result, few freestanding black communities formed in the county as in other regions of the state. Instead many African-Americans appear to have dispersed across the county, as evident in the 1870 census and by the numerous residents labeled “colored” on Lake's 1883 atlas. Census data and oral tradition suggest that many African-Americans became tenant farmers; relatively few owned their own farms. Tradition says black artisans built many houses and barns in the county; no individual craftsmen, however, have yet been identified.
The families who remained in Boone County concentrated themselves in the Burlington, Union and Walton areas. Names such as Utz, Baker, Webb, and Sleet reflect back to the former slave holders, as well as, the white heritage of these families.
The families that migrated out of Boone County have kept ties to their Boone County heritage and are eager to share their stories and memories of Boone County. As research continues, the ties to Boone County will tighten and their story will become more complete.
An extensive search has been made of Boone County records for any mention of African Americans- both before and after 1865. Browsing through the records provides an interesting snapshot at what life was like in Boone County for both enslaved persons and those choosing to stay in Boone County after the Civil War.
Dr. Eric R. Jackson is an associate professor of history and director of the Black Studies program at Northern Kentucky University. He received his doctorate from the University of Cincinnati in 2000, where his studies focused on Early American and African American history, with a minor in Colonial Latin American history. His dissertation examined the educational history of African American Indianapolians during the early part of the 20thcentury. Dr. Jackson has taught numerous courses, such as: Researching Local Underground Railroad Sites; Introduction to Black Studies; the History of African Americans to 1877; and the History of African American Education. Dr. Jackson has published in several local, regional, national, and international journals, as well as, several books that include but is not limited to a co-author volume titled Reflections of African American Leaders in the Peace Movement and Northern Kentucky.