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A Kentucky tour brings ‘new truth’ to the Henry Clay story

🕐 5 min read

By LINDA BLACKFORD, Lexington Herald-Leader
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — “But I am free from American slavery, after wearing the galling chains on my limbs 53 years 9 of which it has been my unhappy lot to be the slave of Henry Clay. It has been said by some, that Clay’s slaves had rather live with him than be free, but I had rather this day, have a millstone tied to my neck, and be sunk to the bottom of Detroit river, than to go back to Ashland and be his slave for life.” – Lewis Richardson, March 13, 1846
Three months before Richardson gave this impassioned speech in Ontario, Ashland’s overseer had stripped off his shirt and lashed him 150 times. Richardson’s crime was to return a little after 5 a.m. from visiting his wife, who was enslaved at a farm about three miles away from Ashland. He and his wife agreed he must escape, so not long after, he made his way along the Underground Railroad to Ontario. In March, he gave a speech that has provided crucial, damning details about the lives of the enslaved at Ashland:

“During the 9 years living with Mr. Clay, he has not given me a hat nor cap to wear, nor a stitch of bed clothes, except one small coarse blanket. Yet he has said publicly his slaves were “fat and slick!” But I say if they are, it is not because they are so well used by him. They have nothing but coarse bread and meat to eat, and not enough of that. They are allowanced every week. For each field hand is allowed one peck of coarse corn meal and meat in proportion, and no vegetables of any kind. Such is the treatment that Henry Clay’s slaves receive from him.”

Long ignored or written out of Ashland’s history, Richardson and the other 121 enslaved people are now the centerpiece of the new tour titled “Traces: Slavery at Ashland.” It’s given every day at 1 p.m. now that Ashland has reopened. The timing is right, given America’s new historical reckonings, although Ashland officials have been working on the tour for several years.
In 2016, executive director Jim Clark and Curator Eric Brooks got an email from a Cincinnati woman who had done the traditional Ashland tour.

“She found our interpretive marker about slavery to be lacking in content, and said it sounded like we were apologists for Henry’s position for slavery,” Clark said. “That started us thinking about the language we were using and the stories that were not being told.”
They received a Local History Trust Fund Grant from the Kentucky Historical Society and held a listening session at the Lyric Theater to hear from people who had oral histories about Ashland passed down through their families. They also hired two consultants, Ashley Smith, executive director of Black Soil and Amy Taylor, a University of Kentucky history professor, to shape the tour of the unsavory side of America’s Great Compromiser, who, like his many peers, talked about the evils of slavery while living off its bounty.

“He owned enslaved people his whole life and never wavered from that,” Brooks said. “This brings new truth to his story.”
Smith is giving two Traces tours a week, because it hews so closely to her organization’s mission. Black Soil wants to reconnect black Kentuckians to their legacy and heritage in agriculture. Ashland is a good starting point.
Clay was considered an innovator in agriculture, particularly in hemp, which was made easier when enslaved labor did the back-breaking work required to extract the fibers used to make rope and cloth. Ashland was also an important Thoroughbred breeding center.

Smith starts the tour along the old farm road, barely visible and parallel to the formal Ashland garden, where they believe the enslaved lived on what was then a 660-acre plantation. Nothing remains of those structures, and the stories of their inhabitants have been slowly and sadly pieced together from farm records and letters. People like Tom Todd, who saved up extra money making shoes, perhaps to buy his freedom or that of a loved one. When the money was stolen, he hung himself in a corn crib.

“His money represented his hope and when that hope was taken, he chose to take his own life,” Smith said.
She emphasizes two words: Resistance and resilience. Resistance from people like Charlotte Dupuy, who was bought by Clay for $450 after she married Aaron Dupuy, who was already Ashland chattel. Charlotte Dupuy traveled with the family to Washington, D.C., and there, sued Clay for her freedom because her mother had been born free. She lost the case and stayed enslaved by the Clays until the 1840s, along with her children Charles and Mary Ann.

Nor does the tour shy away from one of slavery’s most shameful secrets: The exploitation and rape of enslaved women by their owners. Phoebe Moore was bought by Henry Clay, according to her obituary, and claimed to have two children by Clay. Mary Ann Dupuy had a mixed race child named Henry. DNA evidence does not exist to prove these connections, but Ashland officials are still looking. This kind of sexual exploitation “was more of the rule than the exception,” Smith said.

For Smith, America cannot heal from its original sin until it’s willing to acknowledge that its great economic power was built on slavery. It’s something many white people have been unwilling to face, so it was kept out of the public discourse. With tours like these, both Black and white people can better understand the nation’s beginnings.
“We see Traces as a tool that can help recenter Black America at the heart of American agriculture,” she said. “Institutions are taking the right step to say ‘we can’t lie about this anymore.'”
Smith said that many have been willing listeners to the tour, especially white people who just in the past few months realize how much they do not understand about race and our history.

During the pandemic especially, Ashland has provided shade and peace to many neighbors who picnic and walk their dogs on its paths. But they are mostly white and may not understand that Ashland also represents a place of unimaginable pain and suffering.
“There’s so much work to be done,” she said. “This tour is a great beginning point for white and Black people, but primarily white people, to really understand slavery and all that went to support it.”

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