Kentucky to pardon long deceased abolitionists

Kentucky to pardon long deceased abolitionists

In Frankfort, Kentucky, Lydia Parks and Mattie Johnson will soon have their civil rights restored when the Governor issues pardons for them.

Charles T. Webber, "The Underground Railroad," 1893. (Image via Wikipedia)

FRANKFORT, Kentucky, April 21, 2010 —  In Frankfort, Kentucky, Lydia Parks and Mattie Johnson will soon have their civil rights restored when the Governor issues pardons for them. The only problem is that neither woman will be able to enjoy it – they’ve been dead for over 100 years. 

Lydia Parks was a 62 year old housewife in Louisville and Mattie, 27 years old, was her house servant. When Lydia tried to help Mattie escape the bonds of  slavery, both women went to prison.  It was against the law back then.

In pardoning Lydia and Mattie, Kentucky is about to plow new ground in the field of pardoning past felons. This is normally done automatically in most states, so that the rights they have given up by felony convictions can be  restored. (Virginia is one of only two who does not do this.)

This case is a bit different. They and forty-two other  men and women, old and  young, black and white alike, were sentenced and forgotten many years ago. At that time, the law established penalties for “seducing or enticing slaves to leave their lawful owners,” and the crimes were committed both before and after the 1861-1865 period.

All served out their terms (as much as 20 years) at the  Kentucky State Penitentiary, then located in Frankfort, where many died behind bars.

According to John Cheves of the Lexington (KY) Herald Leader with whom I spoke on the phone, one man – David C. McDonald – was forgotten, left in the penitentiary and remained in the prison until 1875, five  years after slavery was abolished.

A group of interested individuals has presented the pardon idea to Governor Steve Beshear, the individual responsible for issuing pardons.  Since this type of pardon is not covered in the Kentucky statute which only requires that someone send the letter of request,  they are working to make it possible to posthumously pardon these individuals.  At long last their records will be forever cleared.

No descendants of the forty-four have stepped forward or expressed interest in the project, despite articles in several newspapers including a recent opinion piece on the Editorial Page of The New York Times.

Between Rodney Barnes, who serves in the Department for Public Advocacy and his college intern Jared Schultze, both working in their spare time as volunteers, and  a retired state archivist, James Prichard, it’s been a labor of love and time.

Prichard has been researching slavery in Kentucky for some time and will soon publish a  book on the subject.

Prichard has been selective in his research:  when he found one of the slave assisters who only wanted to re-sell an individual,  that person is not included in the project,  and neither is the man who charged each slave that he  helped escape.  He looks for  “pure intentions,” he said in his conversation with Cheves.

Barnes learned of the project and was fascinated by the prospect of posthumous pardons.  And that it was a step that should be taken. For his intern, Jared Schultze,  searching the yellowed records has been a devilish task, and  all three men are confident that these forty-four are but the tip of an anti-slavery iceberg.

While it appears that the majority of escaping slaves did so with no outside assistance, the role of those aiding them has long been a subject of discussion, hence the enactment of laws against such assistance. Kentucky did not tolerate interference with its legally enslaved people and chose the path of inflicting penalties for lawbreakers rather than enlarging the militia to hunt them down.

Kentucky’s role in the war had always been ambivalent. Only one-third of the state sided with the Confederacy, yet that portion established its own governor, treasury, printed currency, and created its own state flag. While many consider it a “border state,” the Southern and Confederate heritage remains valiantly strong in the Bluegrass as well as Eastern Kentucky.

The state’s part in slavery was almost a minor one – as of 1861 Kentucky had 225,000 slaves, roughly 25% of the population.  Tobacco and hemp were major products in the agri-commerce, both labor intensive, and while there were many farms, very few reached the size of the “plantations” in states further to the South. Slaves worked in the fields and in the houses, and helped raise the babies, but the overall atmosphere there was not as harsh as in appears to have been in other states.

Still many desperately wanted their freedom, and to those the idea of an escape across the Ohio River which borders the state  was  strong incentive indeed.  And the men and women for whom the little group now appeals for pardon  were brave enough to assist many slaves into free states. Again,  the group would love to hear from some descendants, but none have appeared, which seems to be a curious aspect.

One would think they would want their ancestors cleared of any charges.

Those assisting the slaves ran the gamut, from young to elderly, from a minister (Calvin Fairbanks)  to a black banker (Dr. Perkins).  And Lydia Parks and Mattie Johnson were two of the seven women who were  incarcerated. There was also Isaac Barter, a native of Ireland who served  his time, and sixty-one  year old William H. Davis who actually escaped. According to Prichard’s research, the prison record said that he “went a-fishing” and never came back.

Prichard’s records also tell the poignant tale of Tom Johnson , who was a “free man of color,” but who gave up his own freedom because he wanted to marry Amanda, property of a Marion County owner, and talked her into running away with him in August of 1863.  The  runaway couple was soon captured, and  Johnson ended up serving two years for his  effort to help his lady love.

Rodney Barnes sums it up well saying:

“This is such a neat project. I wouldn’t want to meet the person who objected to it.  We may end up being the first state to do anything like this, which would be terrific.”

The paperwork rolls on as efforts continue to clear the names of these individuals, many years after the fact, and the governor is expected to act on it in the next few months.

No one seemed to know if this would be part of Kentucky’s Civil War Sesquicentennial project, but it would seem to be a good one to consider. And at least forty-four of those who assisted slaves to freedom would forever be remembered.


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Martha Boltz
Martha Boltz was a frequent contributor to the long-running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War section in both print and online editions. A regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page dating back to 1994, she is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history." She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."